Orange orchard
Orange orchard in spring (Ekaterina Filatova / Shutterstock)

By Kevin Hecteman, Assistant Editor, Ag Alert

Reprinted with Permission from California Farm Bureau Federation

That fresh navel orange in the bowl on your countertop survived a hot, dry year to get there.

“It’s been a very difficult summer,” said Matt Fisher, a San Joaquin Valley citrus farmer with groves stretching from Orange Cove to south of Bakersfield. “It’s one of those seasons where you’re fighting every single day to make sure you have supply.

“And yet when you look up at this time of year and you actually see how well you did, and you see the lack of size in the fruit,” he continued, “it’s a pretty big deal that you realize how short you were.”

Ryan Davis, president of Porterville Citrus in Terra Bella, said the growing season from his perspective has gone well, “though crop set is down 14%-15%.”

“There’s a large percentage of folks that are experiencing a tremendous amount of pressure, from pumps going down, in terms of wells going dry, and limitations to a lot of irrigation districts,” Davis said.

All things considered, it’s been a good year so far, Davis said.

“We experienced a pretty nice summer Valencia run in terms of FOB (freight on board), and movement on the last third increased to satisfactory levels,” Davis said. “The startup to this navel season has got a pretty well-balanced, good feel to the market in terms of moving both grades and mid- to smaller size structure up to this point.”

There are several factors in play, Fisher said, including California’s ongoing drought and triple-digit heat waves. Citrus growers, he noted, “make money with size, quality and volume”—and the heat topping 110 degrees played its part in a negative way.

“When it’s as hot as it’s been, the trees just shut down, and they don’t tend to grow with size. So even though we may have sourced water, was it the lack of water or the amount of heat?” Fisher said. “At the end of the day, what we have now is a small size structure in our crop, which is not good. We typically want larger sizes.”

For navel oranges, the early varieties of which are just coming into season, the “money sizes” are 56-, 72- and 88-count, Fisher said. The numbers reference the pieces of fruit needed to fill a standard carton.

Those prize 56s and 72s were fetching $27.95 per carton (for the 56s) and $25.95-$26.95 per carton (for the 72s) at the shipping point of Phoenix as of Nov. 4, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Marketing Service. Smaller navels ranged $21.95-$23.95 for the 88s and $18.95-$19.95 for the 138s.

So far this year, Fisher said, early navels are running small, with 88-, 113- and 138-count oranges predominating.

“The navel crop, the first third of it’s going to be quite similar in terms of volume—it’s the back two-thirds, and especially the final third of this crop, is where we’ll see the real lighter crop settle in,” Davis said.

California citrus farmers could use a break, particularly after an internal grower survey conducted earlier in the fall by California Citrus Mutual found soaring costs for growers, especially for water and shipping, on account of the drought and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The survey found that the spot market for surface water ballooned 400%—if it was even available to begin with—and shipping costs were up as much as 380% thanks to port delays and container shortages. That’s on top of rising prices for fuel and fertilizer, according to the survey.

Overall, the survey found, the cost to bring citrus to market was up nearly $1,000 per acre, or 19% since the pandemic began, according to CCM.

California citrus groves this year hold some 116,000 bearing acres of navels and other varieties, and 26,000 bearing acres of Valencias, according to data from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. In 2019—the most recent year for which statewide numbers are available—California citrus growers produced 20.4 million cartons of Valencias and 84 million cartons of navels and other varieties, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Navel season typically begins with early varieties coming off in mid-October; late-season navels should be ready around February, with harvest wrapping up in June. In 2020, Fisher said, harvest ran long.

“We were picking navels clear into August last year,” Fisher said. “That’s pretty abnormal, but all that fruit that was left on the tree negatively impacted the crop set for this year. There’s blocks that are 50% off in terms of their volumes. The back end of our crop this year is going to be really, really light. The front end is going to be normal.”

Valencia orange season typically runs March to October, and the 2021 edition was “interesting,” Fisher said.

“The larger sizes—when I say larger, I’m talking 56 and 72—we were really struggling to move,” Fisher said. “The way that the Valencia market works is, you want the bigger fruit early to go export. The guys overseas like the larger-size fruit. Once you hit the Fourth of July, typically—domestically, anyway—they don’t like bigger Valencias. It shifts more to a food-service market, and the food-service market likes smaller sizes,” including the 88-, 113- and 138-count fruit.

Fisher noted demand for smaller Valencias rose as the end of the season approached.

“Prices really went up, which was good,” he said. “It was helpful for us. If you had larger fruit on the tree, you didn’t do as well. But if you had a smaller size structure, the tail end of the Valencia thing was pretty good.”

As for this coming winter, Fisher said he’s prepared for most anything. The emerging La Niña weather pattern could mean below-average rainfall in California citrus country, he said.

“You’re anticipating it to be colder and drier than an average year,” Fisher said. “But the way that the weather patterns have been evolving, I’m not so sure you can put a lot of stock in what’s been typical.”

The late-October atmospheric river was “tremendous,” he said.

“The timing couldn’t have been better,” Fisher said. “We got largely about an inch of rain, which was exceptional for helping us with the size.” On the other hand, “October has been cooler than most Octobers,” he added. “We had that good rainstorm, good snow in the mountains. So, to be honest with you, I’m optimistic about it, but we’re prepared for anything.”

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