( Photo courtesy Ashley Nickle )

California growers were somewhat happier with the way this year’s citrus season was shaping up compared to last year.

A heavy navel orange crop — 80 million 40-pound cartons, not counting fruit that fell to the ground — coupled with small fruit size and a horrible export market made 2018-19 “one of the worst seasons we’ve ever had,” said Casey Creamer, president of Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual.

“Pricing last year was the worst we’ve seen in recent memory,” he said.

Things were looking brighter as 2020 kicked off.

The forecast for the 2019-20 season dropped to 73 million cartons.

“That’s good news,” Creamer said.

F.o.b. prices for 7/10 bushel cartons of size 56s and 48s were mostly $19.18-21.20 on Jan. 9, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Pricing and demand for lemons also has been good, Creamer said.

On Jan. 9, f.o.b. prices for 7/10 bushel cartons of size 115 California lemons were mostly $31.18-34.20, according to the USDA.

As of the second week of January, about 20% of California’s navel orange crop had been picked, on par with the same time last year, and Creamer expected harvesting to pick up as export deals ramped up.

Trade with China remained a question mark, but Creamer was hopeful that wrinkles could be ironed out.

“We’re optimistic that we’re going to continue to see movement into China and other foreign markets,” he said.

Besides China, Canada, South Korea and Japan are major export markets for California navel oranges and lemons, he said.

Exporters were excited to see a new trade agreement take effect between the U.S. and Japan on Jan. 1. The pact reduces the tariff from 25% to 20% and puts the U.S. on equal footing with other Trans-Pacific Partnership countries, Creamer said.

He also saw incremental trade opportunities with Vietnam.

Exports, especially to major importers like China, are important to California growers, and when those markets drop purchases, it can create an oversupply for the domestic market and depress U.S. prices.

California grower-shippers are expecting ample supplies, large sizes and good-quality fruit.

Edison, Calif.-based Johnston Farms will have navel oranges and grapefruit through April, said Derek Vaughn, citrus sales manager.

The company expects to finish its satsuma mandarin program by late January and transition to murcotts.

Quality has been “really good” on mandarins, he said.

Winds in Kern County caused scarring to some navel oranges, he said, but growing conditions generally were good, and ample rainfall late last year helped fruit size up.

Lower navel volume was helpful early in the season, said Keith Wilson, sales manager for Cecelia Packing Corp., Orange Cove, Calif. But still, some suppliers were putting a lot of fruit into the market.

Wilson expects navel volume to slow down somewhat in late March or early April because there won’t be a lot of late varieties this year.

That could affect the marketplace later in the season, he said.

Wilson has noticed a trend of consistent pricing throughout the season at retail, with the exception of a few ads from time to time.

That marks a change from the past, when prices could change from week to week.

“It used to follow the wholesale market up and down,” he said.

SunWest Fruit Co. Inc., Parlier, Calif., is scoring a hit with its cara cara navel orange program, said Gino DiBuduo, sales director.

“It’s been an exciting growth item for us,” he said.

He attributed the cara cara sales surge over the past few years to an increase in demand sparked by a proliferation of consumer packs.

Consumer packs give growers space to explain what makes cara caras different from standard navel oranges, he said.

“It’s a unique piece of fruit with a different flavor profile,” DiBuduo said.

The bag can describe the flavor, show images of the internal differences and help explain why cara caras might cost twice as much as regular navel oranges.

But expanding cara cara sales have not caused navel business to drop off, he said.

“They haven’t cannibalized navels whatsoever,” Vaughn said.

He believes that’s because the cara cara falls into the specialty category.

“It tends to attract a totally different customer,” he said. “I believe you are gaining a new consumer with this.”

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