Small citrus fruit provides good eating

01/20/2011 04:33:28 PM
Cynthia David

Weather and disease are constant threats in the citrus industry, as in all agriculture. But as 2010 ended and a new year began, it was hard to catch a break.

A few nights of unseasonable cold affected some Florida citrus groves in mid-December, and the state continues to battle citrus greening disease and canker, both without a cure.

“If the crop remains in good shape and losses from the cold aren’t high, then we should have good shipments this month of navels, sunburst tangerines and all varieties of grapefruit,” said David Mixon, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Seald Sweet International, Vero Beach, Fla.

In Texas, the discovery of sweet orange scab left shippers unable to move citrus for several weeks, until the release of a U.S. Department of Agriculture order on Dec. 22. The order allowed Texas citrus into other citrus-producing states including California, its biggest domestic customer, said Ray Prewett, president of Mission-based Texas Citrus Mutual.

While Prewett said Texas was on track to set a record for the driest October to December, many California growers were forced to stop harvesting their bumper crop of navel oranges and seedless mandarins by torrential rains between Christmas and New Year, said Joel Nelsen, president California Citrus Mutual, Exeter.

The industry was able to satisfy domestic demand for the holidays, Nelsen said, but significant export opportunities in South Korea, China and Japan were lost leading up to the Asian New Year, which begins Feb. 3.

Growers and packer say the good news is that the rain was expected to bump up the size of this year’s smaller-sized fruit, along with California reservoirs.

“It’s a lot of rain, but we were in a drought so we’ll take it,” said Garff Hathcock, organic division manager for Corona-College Heights Orange & Lemon Association packing house in Riverside, Calif.

This year’s small fruit means good value for the consumer, said Neil Galone, vice president sales and marketing for Booth Ranches LLC, Orange Cove, Calif., which is packing more bags of navels this year.

“Smaller fruit tastes just as good,” he said, “and if the value is there, it makes sense for retailers to offer it to their customer.”

California navels are at their best in January, Galone said, with the fruit running “pretty much right off the tree, so it’s good and firm and at its peak of flavor.”

Declines in citrus production and per capita use have driven down overall fresh fruit consumption in the past five years, according to USDA figures released in December.

Per-capita use of oranges dropped from 10.8 pounds to 9.1 pounds per person, according to the USDA, and grapefruit dropped from 4.1 pounds in 2004 to 2.8 pounds in 2009.

Though consumption is declining in citrus as a category, when you look at individual varieties, the consumption of clementines and other small seedless oranges is rising, Galone said.

In December, the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service forecast U.S. tangerine and mandarin production at 5% above last year, and predicted prices will remain strong as the easy-peel industry continues to grow and markets expand.

NASS forecasts California’s orange crop at 2.4 million tons, up 14% from last season and nearly 39% above 2008-09. Florida’s orange production, 95% of which is used for juice, is up 9% from last season but 10% below 2008-09, according to NASS, while Florida grapefruit is facing a fourth consecutive season of declining production.

NASS forecasts this year’s U.S. lemon crop at 948,000 tons, 10% higher than the 2009-10 crop.

While most North Americans think of citrus as a winter commodity, imported summer citrus is growing by up to 20% every year, Mixon said.

“Two years ago, we had almost 100% growth on navel oranges imported into the U.S. from Chile, South Africa, Peru, soon to be Uruguay and eventually Argentina,” he said.

Australia can’t afford to stay competitive in the U.S., so they’d be better off concentrating their efforts closer to home, he said.

Along with competition from exports, California growers are also competing against one another, Nelsen said.

“Our production is up and we have our own varieties going head to head,” he said.

“Before, we did navels in the winter and early spring, then valencias late spring and summer. Now we have internal competition, and we’re going to have to manage that.”



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