Johnston Farms’ navel oranges.
Johnston Farms’ navel oranges.

By Valley Ag Voice Staff

Our worlds were turned upside down in March when we were faced with the overarching reality of COVID-19. This instituted a reaction that demanded most of us to shelter in our homes as Governor Newsom issued a stay-at-home order. Yet, amid many consumers clearing out stores, citrus is seeing mixed results with consumers buying mainly for consumption at home. 

“The demand for citrus, and navels in particular, really took off the second week of March,” commented John Clerou who works in sales at Johnston Farms in Edison California. “The navel season had been flat up until that point. COVID-19 had actually slowed down some of our business with exports and domestic sales. When it became apparent COVID-19 was going to change day-to-day lives, it really upended the market,” added Clerou.

Others also saw the quick spike in demand. Brian Grant, the Operations Manager at Nickel Family LLC, described their experience: “Around mid-March we did see an effort by our packing houses to come quickly harvest the remaining navels and mandarins we had remaining on the trees. All remaining trees were harvested in a couple of days.”

“People have always known citrus is an excellent source of Vitamin C, and navels along with other staple items saw increased demand. For Johnston Farms, we finished our navel season about 2 weeks earlier due to the increased demand,” added Clerou.

Casey Creamer, President & CEO of California Citrus Mutual

Casey Creamer, president of California Citrus Mutual, the advocacy organization for the citrus industry in the state, pointed out that while demand was up for certain varieties, other citrus varieties have seen sales fall off. “Navels and mandarins have continued to move, ahead of schedule compared to where they would be at this time in the season.” However, Creamer also pointed out some varieties of citrus resulted with some reductions in demand: “Lemons have seen a downturn—50 to 60 percent of lemons go to restaurants, and with that demand off, there has been a drop in the use of lemons. One packing house in the Ventura coastal area saw a 80 to 90 percent drop in volume at their packing house.”

While the increased demand for some varieties has been good for the market, it was not enough to erase other problems that already faced citrus. “Navels have had a significant problem the last few years, and this season the market was underwater mostly because of China Tariff disputes. The uptick in demand has been good, but the increase in demand is still not relieving the cost pressure on navels,” added Mr. Creamer. 

Clerou mentioned that some of Johnston Farms citrus were impacted negatively because of the outbreak in China. “On the flip side, COVID-19 really slowed down our stem and leaf mandarin program. Traditionally our stem and leaf mandarins are popular in Asian markets domestically, and business fell off as much as 75% in mid-January due to the concerns of COVID-19. It never recovered like the navel oranges did.”

While demand has been mixed consumers can count on farmers to continue to feed America. “Farmers will continue to work hard to ensure there are not significant disruptions in America’s food supply,” added Brian Grant.