man picking mandarin oranges
An employee of Colwell Thundering Herd Ranch harvests mandarins in Penryn. Farmer Rich Colwell says his harvest and his business are up this year, as more customers seek out mandarins for their health benefits in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Kevin Hecteman)

Reprinted with Permission from the California Farm Bureau Federation 

Rich Colwell isn’t dreaming of an orange Christmas. He’s having one right now.

Colwell, who grows, packs and ships mandarins in Penryn, says his crop has been “very heavy and robust.”

“We’ve been blessed with excellent weather for harvesting,” he said, with only one day of rain before this past weekend, and because of that, he noted, “we’ve been able to pull a large amount of tree-ripened, sweet fruit off the trees.”

Casey Creamer, president of California Citrus Mutual in Exeter, described this year’s mandarin quality as “superb.”

“Sizing is good, and there’s a good quantity this year, compared to last year,” Creamer said, adding that he’s “just really optimistic. It’s got excellent flavor and should eat well.”

In addition, Colwell said, the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting health concerns have boosted the fruit’s popularity, in part due to its vitamin C content.

“I think that the demand for fresh, well-grown, well-cared-for, tasty mandarins, particularly during this COVID-19 period, has really exploded,” he said. At his farm, “everybody’s working 10-12 hours a day just to keep up right now. It’s been a very, very good season and continues to be.”

Along with his harvesting and packing crews, Colwell named the U.S. Postal Service as a hero of the harvest season.

On one recent December morning, Colwell shipped 82 boxes of mandarins in the morning, addressed to customers around the country, and had 15 to 20 more ready to go in the afternoon. Shipments of 5- or 10-pound boxes have gone up “by an order of magnitude this year,” he said, compared to 2019.

“They’re being inundated with orders that are going out, and they’re keeping up with them,” Colwell said of the post office.

Colwell runs one of 40 to 50 family mandarin farms in Placer County, east of Sacramento. Placer’s mandarin farmers handle their own packing, he noted.

“We have a very personal touch, very close relationship with the trees,” he said. “We planted them ourselves. We nurture them ourselves. We prune them ourselves, and we pick them with crews ourselves.”

Most of the California mandarin crop goes into retail channels, Creamer said, where uncertainty and changing shopping habits brought on by the pandemic await.

“Who knows what the new normal is going to be?” he said. “We anticipate a good, strong market overall for the citrus category, but the future, what that holds, is really, really uncertain.”

Harvest season typically starts the first week of November and runs through mid-January for Satsuma mandarins, said Colwell, who was harvesting Owari Satsumas last week. Orchards with late-season fruit such as Nuggets or Clementines might go another month or so beyond that, he added.

As part of the greater Sacramento region, Placer County was placed into a new pandemic lockdown under state guidelines earlier this month. Colwell said he’s seen an increase in on-site orchard-store sales, noting that this is where most growers in his area do best.

“I think the consumers believe that it’s much safer to come out to the ranches,” said Colwell, noting that precautions such as social distancing and mask wearing are in place. “It’s a getaway for them, particularly now that we’re going to experience another lockdown in California.”

Colwell’s farm stands among the 166 acres of Placer County farmland planted to mandarins in 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The state has 63,809 acres of mandarins this year, USDA reported; Tulare County leads the way with nearly 24,000 acres.

Earlier this year, the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service conducted its first Mandarin Objective Measurement Survey, covering seven counties from Fresno to Imperial. The survey found an average of 945 mandarins per tree among the 271 trees sampled, with an average size of 1.49 inches in diameter. USDA said a production forecast remains at least three years down the road.

Cooler weather of late has been a boon to the crop, Creamer said.

“I would say this latest spell of cold, wet weather early in the harvest season has really helped color up the fruit overall,” he said.

Cooler weather “hardens the rind,” he added. “It just helps the fruit sort of set, helps with the brix-to-acid ratio” and helps the crop hold on the tree longer.

“We’re a little bit different crop than most,” Creamer said. “The crop can be ready, but it can still hold and mature on the tree and get more sizing and improve quality. Having that cold weather early on really helps that fruit hold longer and taste better for a longer period of time.”

Creamer said he’s looking forward to a good season for farmers, “because frankly, the last couple of years have been pretty difficult on citrus growers, as far as returns.”

“I’m hoping for a really good year,” he said, “to really help our growers get back to a market that they can be profitable and productive and continue their operations.”

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