EXETER, Calif. — Last December’s freeze and the state’s continuing drought are two wildcards when it comes to forecasting California’s upcoming navel season.

Bob Blakely, vice president of California Citrus Mutual, said he saw quite a bit of variability among navel orange groves in mid-July.

“There are some groves where the crop looks comparable to last year,” he said.

“Some appear to be down, and it depends on how much freeze damage they had last. Sometimes it impacts the crop the following year. But it doesn’t appear (the crop) will be any bigger than what we had last year.”

Water availability also is playing a big role in the condition of groves, fruit loads and individual fruit piece sizes, Blakely said.

In most areas of the Central Valley, growers received little if any surface water this year. Those with wells have resorted to groundwater to make up supplies.

In some areas, such as around Orange Cove, Lindsay and Terra Bella, growers have historically relied on surface supplies and some don’t have wells for backup.

“Where water has been very restricted, those trees will not have received adequate water and that’s going to have a significant impact on the amount of the crop and the size of the fruit as well,” Blakely said.

Still other growers have accelerated grove removal to free up water for use on other more productive blocks. How much acreage is actually pushed out will affect the size of the navel crop the industry has to market this season, he said.

Al Imbimbo, vice president of sales and marketing for Lindsay-based Suntreat Packing & Shipping Co., agreed, citing what he’d seen in late July.

“I was amazed just east of Lindsay to the foothills how many farms I saw where they were just letting the trees die,” he said.

Norm Gatineau, vice president of sales and marketing for Lindsay-based LoBue Citrus, said it’s hard to peg how much acreage is involved.

“As of right now, we do not know what percentage of the total acreage planted that will be, but there will definitely be losses,” he said.

Based on previous seasons, Blakely said he expected navel harvest to begin between early October and November. The actual start will depend on when the fruit meets the California maturity standard and has adequate color break.

The fruit probably won’t have trouble meeting the maturity standard because the heat has promoted sugar accumulation, Imbimbo said. What might hold it back is being able to make color, which is promoted by cooler nights.

But an early start would bode well for packers and retailers, Imbimbo said.

“We will have fruit available in October, and the industry will have promotable volumes for Thanksgiving ads this year,” he said.

Andy Felts, salesman for Wileman Bros. & Elliott Inc., also said it’s still too early to forecast when harvest would begin. But based on what he saw in late July, he said the Cutler-based grower-packer probably wouldn’t start picking navels until early November, a few weeks later than most in the industry.

Felts said he expected a normal sized crop peaking on 56s, 72s and 88s.

In addition to navels, the firm will have cara cara oranges, blood oranges and minneolas.

California growers finished the 2013-14 season harvesting 84 million 40-pound cartons of navels, down 1% from the 2012-13 season, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. It expects to issue its California subjective navel estimate Sept. 11.

This year’s mandarin crop, on the other hand, is likely to be larger than last year as more acreage comes into production, Blakely said.

LoBue Citrus is in that category, and Gatineau said he expects to see large increases in volume of its easy-peel Ribbitz program year over year for the next three years.

Last season, growers harvested 26 million 40-pound cartons of tangerines, which include mandarins, according to the ag statistics service.