VERO BEACH, Fla. — Florida citrus growers expect a deal marked by a late start and smaller-sized fruit than usual.

Freezing temperatures that struck Florida in January and the continuous cold that ran through February and March caused a later bloom, which delayed this fall’s start of grapefruit, oranges and tangerines.

Buyers should also expect this season to bring smaller-sized fruit across the board.

On grapefruit, Pat Rodgers, president of Greene River Marketing Inc., said late-maturing fruit caused hiccup-like starts and stops in the Indian River season as tests one day showed good maturity and juice, then tests the next day would show the opposite.

Though growers by late October had started harvesting, Rodgers said that disruption has caused a much later than normal deal.

“Though there is some large fruit available now, it’s spotty,” he said in late October. “We still see areas where there are a lot of small fruit in the groves. As we move forward, we will have to find places or parts of the groves or different groves that have the size or let the other fruit grow. There is a tremendous opportunity for consumers to get good value on the smaller fruit, the 48s and 56s reds.”

Kevin Swords, Florida citrus sales manager for DNE World Fruit Sales, Fort Pierce, characterized fruit quality as high.

“Fruit quality both in appearance and condition has been outstanding for the most part,” he said in late October. “The eating quality is also very good.”

Because of the smaller-sized fruit on the early grapefruit deal, Swords said buyers shouldn’t expect to conduct large promotions on the jumbo-sized fruit until after Christmas.

Doug Bournique, executive vice president of the Indian River Citrus League, said this season may turn out to be a golden one.

“Our fruit quality looks good,” he said. “Knock on wood, but we have had great growing conditions and no hurricanes. We have been beaten up, abused and left for dead by Mother Nature year after year. With a little average weather from Mother Nature, this could be a vintage Indian River crop. Now we have one of those so far mythical seasons where Mother Nature is putting out a great crop.”

Quentin Roe, president of Wm. G. Roe & Sons Inc., Winter Haven, said tangerine sizings have been running on the smaller end.

“In general, the specialty citrus crop in Florida this year is a nice, high-quality crop, but bringing smaller sizes than we would like to have,” he said in late October. “But it should be a banner eating year. Internal quality should be exceptional. Consumer satisfaction should be very high.”

Al Finch, vice president of sales and marketing for Florida Classic Growers, Lake Hamilton, the marketing arm of the Dundee Citrus Growers Association, said quality looks good for all the varieties though he expects a small overall increase in volume.

Buyers should expect smaller sizings on the sunburst tangerines, which normally begin shipments in mid-November.

“Because of the drought conditions we have been having this season, the sunburst varieties will be considerably smaller this season,” Finch said in mid-October. “We will be promoting bags with 180s and 150s, the smaller sizes. The larger sizes will be very scarce.”

Lower temperatures have helped color up the navel oranges, said Scott George, vice president of sales and marketing for DLF International Inc.

As the season progresses, some of the major chains usually shift their navels purchasing to California.

“When California starts, the people we serve in the South and the East, and the Northeast along the shoreline, they will stay with Florida,” George said. “They seem to focus on Florida. The California fruit is very attractive, so that plays a part in the shift. The southeastern and northeastern chains usually stick with us all the way through Christmas. Some a little sooner than that will go into California fruit.”

DLF expects to ship 1.5 million equivalent cartons this season, up from the 1.2 million it shipped last year.

Richard Miller, domestic sales manager of Premier Citrus Packers Inc., said the fall typically brings strong retailer interest in Florida fruit.

He said retailers get into their programs and begin switching to Florida fruit in late October.

“We are very happy with the quality overall,” Miller said in late October. “We like the crop. It looks very good.”

The strong quality, Miller said, follows the nice, even bloom that came from a cooler-than-normal spring.

The deal didn’t experience frequent hot and cold periods where a tree might bloom four to five different times.

Instead, the colder weather produced a nice, smooth piece of fruit with good shape, he said.

Kelly Marinaro, owner of Sunny Fresh Citrus, Vero Beach, doesn’t have fond memories of last season’s grapefruit deal.

“Many houses have to buy most of or a high percentage of their fruit,” he said. “Last year, the fruit that was purchased during the latter part of the packing season was eliminated by the weather. The people in the fresh business suffered some enormous production reductions. So the profit margins were thinner or nonexistent.”

While only 4% of Florida’s overall orange crop goes to the fresh market, about 40% of Florida’s grapefruit and 70% of its navel oranges and tangerines ship to fresh-market channels.