VERO BEACH, Fla. — This year’s Florida grapefruit season is marked by a slow start caused by later maturing and smaller-sized fruit.

The season got off to a late start this fall because of failing fruit maturity tests.

Instead of starting in early and mid-October, the later-maturing fruit caused harvesting to start about two weeks behind schedule.

Shippers describe the start as puzzling as two months of drought conditions stopped fruit growth and delayed maturities and juice levels, making growers and packers struggle to meet maturity levels during harvesting.

“We have a good crop out there. It’s just a matter of getting to it,” Richard Miller, domestic sales manager of Premier Citrus Packers Inc., said in late October. “Once we get started, things will move along quite well.”

Because of the tardy start, Miller called early season prices high.

In late October, he quoted 56s selling for $10-11, with the larger 48s selling for $12-13 and 40s at $13-14 with prices on jumbos jumping to $16-18 for 36s and $22-24 for 32s and larger.

Miller said prices increased on the 32s because lack of availability requires two weeks to sell a straight load.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture in late October reported 4/5-bushel cartons of Florida red grapefruit in Chicago selling for $26 for 18s, $26-28 for 32s, $20-24 for 36s, $16-20 for 40s, and $17-18 for 56s.

Last season, the USDA in late October reported the same red grapefruit in Chicago selling for $26 for 18s, $28-28.50 for 23s and 27s, $28 for 32s, $24-26 for 36s, $22-24 for 40s and $21 for 48s.

The late start might actually help the deal as packers won’t overrun the market with too much volume too early in the deal, as has frequently happened in the past, Miller said.

He said he expects prices to gradually work their way down as more promotable volume hits the deal.

Pat Rodgers, president of Greene River Marketing Inc., characterized external and internal fruit quality as “absolutely brilliant.”

He said the fruit that was being picked in late October possesses high brix, but buyers need to be aware of smaller sizes.

“I don’t think there will be any point during the season when we will have more 32s and larger than 40s and smaller,” Rodgers said in late October. “The whole season won’t be inundated with 32s, 27s and 23s. It will be one of those years where pricing on bigger fruit will stay fairly strong. The middle sizes will be more prevalent.”

Kevin Swords, Florida citrus sales manager for DNE World Fruit Sales, Fort Pierce, said the challenge of smaller-sized fruit will mean growers will have to better manage their harvesting.

In late October, he said DNE’s growers were just starting to begin strong harvesting volume to where DNE could better supply its retail customers.

Yes, the industry has the challenge of moving smaller-sized fruit early. Growers, however, will have to spot-pick groves twice this season to minimize picking much small fruit and run out of the sized fruit during the latter half of the season, he said.

“It’s going to be a challenge, but we have been down this road before, and the good thing is it will allow us to have grapefruit through all of May,” Swords said.

Indian River growers during the last couple of seasons have finished earlier than normal in April. The later start should allow shippers to supply their retail customers longer, shippers said.

Because of the smaller sizings, Swords said retailers should look to promote smaller sizes in different size bags, such as 3-pound bags.

Paul Genke, director of sales and marketing for The Packers of Indian River Ltd., Fort Pierce, said production should be similar to last season, which featured a variety of sizes.

As fruit ran through the season last year, he said it fit the markets perfectly.

Genke said grapefruit grown in the grower-shipper’s Gulf Coast region in southwest Florida has the same sizing structure as the Indian River region.

“A lot of people think the bloom was later, and it was, but it was prolonged and stretched the deal out,” Genke said in late October. “We still have a lot of areas where the maturity isn’t there.”

Riverfront Groves LLC planned to begin shipping fruit to Japan in earnest in early November, three weeks later than last season, said Dan Richey, chief executive officer.

“This wasn’t the year to have a late start because this is a year when we have opportunity because inventories are very low in Europe and Japan,” he said. “It’s unfortunate because the customers are really desiring our fruit.”

Richey said this season’s forecast of 20.3 million 4/5-bushel cartons should prove a highly manageable crop for retailers and consumers.

According to the USDA, this season’s 20.3 million boxes, which consists of 6 million boxes of white and 14.3 million boxes of red, is 1% smaller than last season’s 21.7 million cartons.

Riverfront plans to ship 1.7 million 4/5-bushel cartons, similar to last year.

Most of Riverfront’s production ships to export customers.

In late October, Matt Kastensmidt, national sales manager for IMG Citrus Inc., said the deal so far has worked well.

“Large fruit is slim and nil, peaking on 40s-48s,” he said. “Promotable volumes in 3- and 5-pound bags are where we can use that fruit. I think it will continue to size as we go through the season. We definitely need some rain to help that along.”