The clementine craze continues to sweep the U.S., with no end in sight to the appeal of the small easy-peel orange.
Clementines and w. murcotts now represent the number one growth in the citrus category, cannibalizing all other citrus, said David Mixon, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Seald Sweet in Vero Beach, Fla.
“Right now, consumers are calling the shots,” said Mixon. “They want it sweet and easy to peel, with no seeds and bright color so it looks ripe. And it has to be convenient.”
It’s a far cry from the way we traditionally enjoyed oranges, he said, recalling the juice of a sweet temple orange running down your arm and off your elbow, with plenty of seeds to spit out.
Seald Sweet is even putting research money into finding easy-peel varieties that would grow well in Florida, he said.
The company is also the third-largest importer of clementines from Spain and Morocco, he said, and produces, sells and markets its own citrus in California.
Despite the popularity of clementines, Mixon said only 40% of U.S. consumers know and regularly buy them, partly because they’re not merchandised well.
“A lot of retailers find it difficult to make room for a square box that’s only available for a period of time,” he said.
“If they don’t build a massive display they have a few boxes lying around the store getting old and nobody sees them. When they do see them they’re not worth eating.”
California, where the navel is still king, has seen an explosion of seedless mandarins, said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual in Exeter, Calif.
“Seven years ago we had 12,000 producing acres,” Nelsen said. “Now we’re over 30,000 and there’s more in the ground.”
Fred Berry, marketing director for Mulholland Citrus, Orange Cove, one of the largest California growers of the easy-peel varieties, said w. murcott mandarins will be the dominant small variety from now until April as the clementine harvest ends, but they’re often retailed as clementines, and they’re so similar consumers can’t tell the difference.
While California clementines have an advantage over imports because the fruit may be fresher and doesn’t have to be cold-treated, growers have a freight disadvantage since the majority of the population lives east of Mississippi, Berry said.
This year, the dollar is stronger against the euro for the first time in several years, prompting some East Coast customers to buy more fruit from Spain and Morocco, he said.
“So far, we are all right,” Berry said. “As long as we can maximize our grower returns, and not have to go into a saturated market, we’re just that much better off.”
Despite the concern that California is planting too many clementine varieties, Mulholland still sees potential for growth.
“If people are still planting, it means there’s still room for growth in terms of demand,” he said. “That growth may come at the expense of other varietals, such as navels. Then again, when you look at the overall consumption in Europe of easy-peelers versus current U.S. consumption, we have a lot of room for growth.”
Producing a seedless clementine is much easier for growers in Spain and Morocco, because their groves are separate from the seeded varieties, Mixon said.
“We fight the seeds in California,” he said. “In certain areas we net them and do the best we can.” With groves closer together, however, he said “it’s almost impossible to eliminate seeds.”