California navel orange growers look toward good 2008-2009 harvest

California navel orange growers are in the midst of an optimistic 2008-09 harvest, according to Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual.

In his report to the 27th Annual Agribusiness Management Conference in Fresno in mid-November, Nelsen said this year’s shorter crop should translate into better navel prices.

“Exterior and interior quality dynamics are also positive,” Nelsen reports. “It appears that plenty of fruit will be available for the holidays.”

Seedless mandarin tonnage is expected to double this year; however, Nelsen does not expect prices to fall since “demand will continue to outstrip supply with more fruit available over a longer period of time.”

Overall, the California citrus industry is in an “economically healthy state,” even though some producers did not fare well last year due to weather problems, fruit quality and marketing issues.

“But with more acres in the ground than ever and producers of other commodities planting citrus, we must acknowledge that something is working right,” says Nelsen.

Seedless mandarin acreage has increased tremendously and even navel acreage has gone up. Additional new shippers and marketers are also coming into the industry, often from other commodities, which are not faring as well as citrus.

There is a fear that the mandarin acreage will cannibalize the navel market. “The task of the industry is not to swap facings at retail, but to expand the amount of shelf space for the category.”

Maximizing per acre revenue for growers is always the goal of the industry. In that vein, growers recognize older groves need to be renovated and sub-varieties may not be as attractive now that so many choices are available.

“Smaller sizes cannot be sold as they once were. The export market is more competitive than ever. It is one thing to produce volume; it’s another to sell it,” Nelsen notes.

California regulatory costs continue to “chew into profits,” and fees are driving the family farmer out of business, creating fewer, but much larger producers.

While the industry is in an overall good state, the “elephant in the room” is the Asian citrus psyllid (ACP).

Recently discovered in San Diego County and bordering Mexico, ACP is a vector for Huanglongbing, or HLB, that has ravaged citrus production worldwide.

In Florida, 300,000 acres have been removed due to HLB. “Florida discovered the problem too late,” Nelsen notes.

California authorities believe they are out in front of the onslaught and have strategies to successfully battle the infestation and prevent the disease from being introduced, according to Nelsen.

“Time will tell,” he says.

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