A lighter lemon crop is expected this year out of California and Arizona, according to growers and industry officials.
“The lemons have enjoyed a pretty good run,” said Bob Blakely, vice president of the Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual.
Prices have fallen over the summer months due to large volumes of imports from Chile and Mexico, but those shipments are dwindling, which is good for growers in the California and Arizona desert, Blakely said.
The first shipments from the desert should start by early October, he said.
The lemon industry has been “very stable and profitable” over the last few years, Blakely said.
Late in 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ruled that fresh lemons from northwestern Argentina will be allowed to be imported into the U.S.
The rule is the result of a decade-long study on pest risks associated with Argentina lemons, according to the USDA. A proposal to allow Argentina lemon imports was published in May 2016 and drew hundreds of comments.
The process included a comprehensive pest risk assessment that was amended several times to account for new scientific information and address public comments, according to the USDA. The USDA evaluation included visits to Argentina in 2007, 2015 and September 2016 to observe production areas, packing practices and traceback abilities, according to the agency.
Blakely said the decision is worrisome to the industry in California and Arizona.
“We feel there’s a risk of additional pest and disease exposure from these lemons,” he said. “A lawsuit was filed against USDA over the way they did that risk assessment.”
That action is designed to “try and make them go back and get that right,” Blakely said. “Argentina has a lot of pests and diseases we don’t have.”
Blakely maintains the USDA’s decision was based on politics, rather than science. “We feel USDA did not follow the proper procedures for evaluating the risk and making a determination.”
Meanwhile, this year’s lemon crop looks good, although this season’s crop will be lighter than normal, growers say.
“We’re probably about 15% or so lighter than last year out of the desert,” said Jeff Olsen, president of Visalia, Calif.-based Chuck Olsen Co.
Sizing is a bit “on the small side, although there is hope that things will size up as we move forward,” Olsen said.
“They got enough moisture from trees to strengthen themselves up,” he said.
The desert season was starting to peak around Oct. 1 and should run through the end of January, he said.
Alex Teague, senior vice president and COO of Santa Paula, Calif.-based Limoneira Co., estimated desert lemon volume to be down about 20%, with the company’s main crop in Yuma, Ariz.
“The sizing has been unusually small for a light crop, due to it being so hot,” he said. “The early temperatures well into the hundreds made the fruit drop. These trees shut down, so we had very slow growth.”
As of Oct. 3, according to the USDA, 7/10-bushel cartons of shippers first grade lemons from the Central & Southern California and Arizona District were mostly $32.50-36.95 for size 75s to 115s, with incrementally lower prices for smaller sizes all the way down to mostly $21.55-26.53 for 235s.
A year ago prices were slightly higher, mostly $36.05-38.05 for size 75s; $40.05-42.05 for 95s; $39.05-42.05 for 115s, with prices incrementally lower for smaller sizes all the way down to mostly $26.05-27.05 for 235s.
Fruit in California’s San Joaquin Valley also will be down by 5% to 7%, compared to last year, although sizing “is a little bit better,” Teague said.
A similar forecast applies to organic lemons, said Steve Taft, president of Temecula, Calif.-based Eco-Farm Corp., which ships lemons from other growers.
“They’re still growing, and there are some variables,” he said. “This last year was a very good crop. If anything, it may be slightly lower.”
There should be ample lemon volumes out of California to cover buyer needs from October through July, Taft said.