Posted: Thursday, April 19, 2012 1:00 PM
USDA expects citrus production to fall as much as 21 percent
By TIM HEARDEN
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Dry weather in the fall has meant smaller fruit for many California citrus growers.
It takes moisture to bring size to oranges, lemons and other fruit. But other than an initial early October downpour and some late November rain, the rest of the autumn and much of the winter brought dry days and chilly nights to Central Valley orchards.
Consequently, USDA forecasts envision production decreases of anywhere from 1 to 21 percent from 2011, depending on the fruit.
"The prior year was one of the largest crops we've ever produced, so typically you'll follow a big crop with a somewhat smaller crop, so it's not much of a surprise," said Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for the Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual.
"Also, even though we set a lot of fruit, we had a very dry fall," he said. "Normally we get the moisture to size the fruit, but the fruit ... didn't follow the normal pattern, so there's more small fruit and fewer boxes."
According to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service in Sacramento:
* Navel orange trees are still on a pace to produce 88 million cartons for the season, an 8 percent decrease from 2011. More than half of the crop is picked.
* Valencia orange groves will yield 28 million cartons this season, down 3 percent from last year. The harvest is expected to pick up in the coming months.
* Growers in the San Joaquin Valley continue a lemon harvest expected to yield 39 million cartons, a drop of 5 percent from the 2010-2011 yield.
* The estimated 6.8 million cartons of grapefruit expected this season is down 21 percent from last year's crop, while the 19.6 million cartons of tangerines produced this year is down only slightly from last year.
The forecasts come after two consecutive months of freezing temperatures from mid-December through mid-February took their toll on citrus crops. About 35 percent of the mandarin orange crop was believed to be lost to frost damage, while about 15 percent of the navel crop was damaged, Citrus Mutual estimated.
The citrus industry spent more than $100 million this winter on wind machines, water and the labor needed to run them, all to protect their trees from recurrent nighttime lows in the 20s.
While the fruit is small, Blakely said the sugar content remains good and utilization rates are still high. Growers have been able to market more than 80 percent of their navel oranges as fresh this season, compared to between 67 percent and 70 percent last year. In addition, the March rains added some size to the fruit, Blakely said.
"It's actually eating very well right now," he said. "We're seeing strong demand, which is also being reflected in a trend toward higher prices. Prices have increased on a week-by-week basis for the last three or four weeks, and we're probably going to see that continue through the end of the season sometime in June."
California Crop Production Report: http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/California/Publications/Other_Files/201204crppd.pdf