It’s not the bees. It’s the market that has California’s seedless mandarin growers buzzing this this year.
Netted W. Murcotts, the variety that produces unwanted seeds when pollinated by bees, are commanding the best prices because buyers are assured of a seedless fruit. Unnetted W. Murcotts lose about half their value, growers say, because of the seeds or suspected seediness. As production of the easy peeling citrus swells, the gap could widen.
Dave Tomlinson, Griffith Farms, Strathmore, lost about $10 per box on unnetted W. Murcotts this season. At bloom time this year Tomlinson joined the ranks of the netted. “We were told by marketers they couldn’t sell them because no one wants seeded fruit. We didn’t have a choice,” he said.
“Marketing the fruit is very challenging,” said Keith Watkins of Bee Sweet Citrus. The Fowler-based independent packer and shipper doesn’t have a lot of W. Murcott acreage and hasn’t netted the trees to keep bees out. A repellant product to minimize pollination was tried with varying success last year, Watkins said.
Watkins said buyers won’t accept fruit that tests over 10 percent seeded, and that means only one seed per fruit. In the past mandarins could be sold as “seedless” if they contained three seeds per piece. In spite of mandarin’s popularity, consumers don’t want any seeds, buyers are now telling growers. Fruit with higher numbers of seeds was selling in years past, said Watkins, but now the majority of the fruit is grown under net and is almost guaranteed to be seedless.
“More than one seed and they reject the lot. We’ve not had many rejected, but with those who net promoting the higher standards it is tough,” said Watkins.
An estimated 75 percent of the W. Murcotts are being netted during bloom to preserve their seedless status. There are more than 10,000 acres of W. Murcotts planted in the central San Joaquin Valley. Larger growers like Paramount Farms and Sun Pacific began netting two years ago when they failed to make a deal with beekeepers about buffer zones around the mandarins. Tomlinson said the netting, estimated to cost between $800 and $1,200 per acre, was a tough sell for smaller growers at first. This year, he said a number of them banded together to purchase netting material from China.
The covered trees produce less fruit, said Etienne Rabe of Paramount. Growers have not determined if the loss stems from the covering or because as seedless fruit, it is harder to set fruit.
“Netting is expensive, and we wish we didn’t have to do it, but it sells the product because they (consumers) are confident it is seedless,” said Rabe. He said cost per acre would depend on the longevity of the netting. Paramount has used its netting for the past three bloom seasons.
Rabe was a member of the legislation-mandated Seedless Mandarin and Honeybee Coexistence Working Group that was asked to deliver a settlement between growers and beekeepers in 2009. When the group failed, California Department of Food and Agriculture stepped in and told both sides to “work it out.”
That essentially meant that beekeepers were given a free pass and the mandarin growers had to either spend money for netting, grow fruit without netting and take their chances with buyers, or give up on seedless fruit, said Joel Nelsen of California Citrus Mutual. Mandarin growers offered several options to a peaceful co-existence, he said, but the beekeepers were not willing to agree.
The state asked that both beekeepers and growers register with the county so if there is a conflict, the other party could be reached to try a compromise. The rule went into effect in January. Marilyn Kinoshita, Tulare County agriculture commissioner, said 113 beekeepers registered and of those 34 waived their right to confidentiality so a mandarin grower could contact them if there was a conflict. Only 29 percent of mandarin growers registered their grove locations. There were no requests for arbitration, Kinoshita added.
The reason may be the season. Beekeepers had more choices for bee sites this year due to a wet spring and winter. More sites meant less bee pressure on mandarins.
Hives were spread out and there was plenty of forage this year in contrast to the two previous dry years where beekeepers heavily depended on citrus blooms for bee feeding. Roger Everett, president of the California State Beekeepers Association, said he is unaware of any beekeepers contacted by mandarin growers about moving bees away from trees.
“The netting has taken a lot of the heat off. There has been some one-on-one between beekeepers and growers and they are working it out, like we did before the legislation,” said Everett.