A lot of fear and trepidation appeared to exist in the California citrus industry with the beginning of this season's navel harvest in October. Much of this anxiety was unwarranted.
Many of the marketing problems attendant with the past two seasons' navel and Valencia orange marketing problems were simply due to poor taste, keeping quality and appearance of the oranges. These problems of the 1998 season were directly attributable to the freeze that year. The fruit quality problems in 1999 may also have been caused by the 1998 freeze since the flower buds of the 1999 crop were in the process of differentiation when the freeze struck.
With the freeze well behind us now in 2000, every reason exists to predict that California navels will be as big, tasty and perfect as we are accustomed to. Domestic and foreign buyers of California citrus are well informed and know when the quality of our crop tastes and looks good. A good tasting, good looking, flawless navel will still sell despite increased competition from fruit from other countries, economic weaknesses in some foreign markets, and some apparent overproduction of navels here.
Some growers, packinghouses and marketers are going into this season confidently. Last year they had little trouble selling quality fruit and many are substantially increasing their acreage. These companies have avoided the temptation of undercutting the reputation of their label these past two difficult years. Fruit grading standards used by these companies remain the same from year to year. If few fruit make first grade (i.e. Fancy), then few Fancy fruit are sold. Second grade fruit (i.e. Choice) likewise, remains Choice, even if little Fancy fruit is available.
If during the freeze year these companies did not have fruit that met their standards of Fancy, they did not sell Choice, Standard or frozen fruit as Fancy. Their buyers know what to expect from these companies, there are no unpleasant surprises for their customers, and buyers will come back year after year to get a quality product if and when it is available.
Nothing appears to ruin a market as selling quantities of poor tasting, poor keeping and malformed fruit early in the season, which brings us to the point of this article. The annual threat to the navel market will soon be here, as we get closer to the harvest of the first navels of the season.
As mentioned above, the reputation and demand for California navels is normally great, and foreign buyers want the new crop as soon as they can buy it. However, growers and marketers should not cave in to buyers' demands too early, no matter how well intentioned (or profitable in the short term) they are. Selling fruit with little sweetness, color or storability may irreparably harm everyone's orange market for the remainder of the season.