Andy Nelson, Markets Editor
Andy Nelson, Markets Editor

One of the preconceptions — or, probably more accurately, prejudices — I brought to the fresh produce industry when I started working at The Packer 11 years ago was that red delicious apples were the last variety I would buy willingly at the grocery store.

In fact, if red delicious was the only option, I might go for applesauce instead.

Yet, shortly after I started writing about produce, I started hearing apple shippers offering passionate defenses of the red delicious.

The apple guys conceded that, yes, in the interest of producing a red delicious whose color was consistently the reddest of reds, more than a few mushy apples ruined the whole barrel for a lot of people.

But they would then insist that the reds were getting better again, thanks to a renewed emphasis on eating quality, not just eye appeal.

I started testing their hypothesis, and found it was true.

Nowadays, I mix in the occasional red with my granny and gala purchases.

Something similar may be happening in the orange industry, albeit on a smaller scale.

The U.S.-grown valencia orange is hardly in the same market position as the American red delicious.

The red has long dominated its category, while the valencia has always played second fiddle to its famous cousin, the navel.

But like the red, the valencia is a longtime staple of the produce department, a piece of fruit that the majority of Americans have likely eaten in the past year.

Also like the red, the valencia has lost ground in recent years to other varieties in its category.

For reds, it’s been fujis, galas, Honeycrisps and a host of other new kids on the block.

In the case of valencias, imports are the culprit, Neil Galone, vice president of sales and marketing for Orange Cove, Calif.-based Booth Ranches LLC, told me recently.

It used to be, Galone said, that when you thought “winter orange” you thought California navel, and when you thought “summer orange” you thought California valencia.

Not the case anymore, thanks to the success of South African, Australian and Chilean summer citrus in the U.S.

“It’s declined substantially in the past 20 years,” Galone said of U.S. valencia acreage.

Substantial acreage has been taken out, but growers have taken care to remove the trees that produced lower-quality oranges and left the ones that yielded great-tasting fruit.

“As demand went down, if it wasn’t good fruit, it got bladed over,” Galone said. “Those that remained are pretty good valencias.”

This season, Galone said he has been pleasantly surprised by the eating quality of the California early valencias.

Typically, it takes awhile for the fruit’s quality to ramp up.

The early-season success has been well-timed, given the frost damage to California navels this season.

Unlike navels, California valencias seem to have made it through the freezes unscathed, Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual, told me.

Galone doesn’t expect a sudden renaissance in California valencia plantings, just as most apple growers likely don’t expect red delicious to steal acreage from galas anytime soon.

But as with the red, the valencia seems to be enjoying a renaissance in quality.

“It’s virtually seedless, firm, good-tasting,” Galone said.

“The valencia of today is not the valencia of 25 years ago.”

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