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Wet Weather Citrus Costs Growers $20 Million to $25 Million | 03-05-2011

After Valley citrus farmers had one of the best and most profitable crops in their history last year, Harvey Bailey had high hopes for this season.

"I was hoping it would be as good as last year, but I don't think it's going to turn out [as good] this year," said Bailey, an Orange Cove man who raises lemons and oranges.

He was one of hundreds of farmers, fruit packers and others who attended California Citrus Mutual's 2011 Citrus Showcase this week at the Visalia Convention Center.

Farmers discussed how crops and bottom lines were affected by a series of unusually strong winter storms in December, which flooded orchards and soaked fruit on trees well beyond normal levels.

As a result, harvesting was delayed a couple of weeks or more in many orchards. It's affected fruit quality, too.

"This year, they taste quality, but rind quality is not as good as it should be," Bailey said. "We'll make some money, but not in excess."

"It's been difficult," said Joel Nelsen, president of Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual, a nonprofit trade association representing about 1,400 growers.

"At the beginning of the season, we knew we were going to have a difficult season," Nelsen said. That's because federal ag officials announced in September a pre-harvest crop estimate, determining that California was shaping up to have a record citrus crop — about 93 million 40-pound cartons. So much fruit on the market tends to drive down the prices farmers get, Nelsen explained. "And when you have a large crop, you tend to have too many small sizes, which consumers don't like," he said.

Some farmers at the showcase said they expect the state's citrus industry still to produce near-record levels of fruit. But quality remains a problem.

"It probably hurt us to the tune of $20 [million] to $25 million," Nelsen said. Most of that will be felt in the Valley, where the majority of California citrus is grown.

Quality losses

Fruit that rotted or fell from branches because it didn't get picked in time accounts for most of those losses. But growers also lost out via delays in picking. They resulted in about 3 million to 4 million cartons of fruit not making it to Asian markets — particularly China and Korea, which usually buy lots of citrus used in Chinese New Year events and gatherings, Nelsen said.

One bright spot: Korea increased its imports of California citrus in recent weeks.

That helps, considering California's export market for citrus has been fairly flat because of foreign competition.

As for the size of this year's citrus crop, Nelsen estimated the December rains will probably cost the industry 5 million to 6 million cartons of fruit. But he and others at the showcase said they still expect a near-record amount of fruit to be produced.

That's not necessarily good news from a business standpoint, said Kevin Severns, general manager of the Orange Cove-Sanger Citrus Association, who also grows citrus on his 40-acre property.

"Citrus prices are quite depressed right now because we have a large crop and very limited quality," he said.

Last year about this time, farmers were paid $11-$16 a carton for navel oranges, Severns said. "Now, they're getting only $9-$12," he said.

But others here at the showcase estimated that it will be hit and miss as to which growers will profit this season.

A lot depends on the quality of the trees a given grower has. Poor trees tend to produce lower-quality fruit that might not hold up well against all the moisture they experienced in December, said Gus Carranza, head fieldman for the Sun Pacific packinghouse in Exeter.

Randy Sligar, who grows navels on 17 acres west of Orosi, said he believes his small operation will break even, but only because he pumped his fields right away after they flooded. His fruit got picked right away after the rains, minimizing his crop damage.

Rest of the season

"I think things are going to get better," Nelsen said. The weaker fruit — which tends to spoil or fall faster — is mostly off the trees.

"So I think the fruit from this point on to the first of July will be pretty good," he said.

Some in the industry say it's still too early to predict how farmers will do this year.

It's only halfway through the season and only about 27 million cartons have been picked.

Between the rain and a generally warm winter, fruit is maturing at a faster rate than farmers would like, said Al Bates, general manager of Sun Pacific. "It's not holding up on the tree as well," he said. "The fruit thinks it's early April."

So farmers are getting their fields picked as fast as they can before their fruit gets too mature and drops.

But that is adding to the amount of citrus on the market and hurting prices, he said.

"We can't keep up with the maturing fruit," he said.

Packinghouses are adding shifts to handle extra fruit, said David Sorenson, a manager for Fruit Growers Supply and Packing Services in Exeter.

There's still fruit affected by the storms, with rot and creases still coming into the packinghouses.

It's hard to tell how much longer that will last, he said.

Sorenson estimated this season might be only a fair one for farmers, but added that would depend on what nature does over the rest of March.

Ideally, high temperatures will stay in the 50-to 60-degree range, he said. "If March comes in and we get 80- to 85-degree days, this fruit is going to mature faster and drop off the trees," he said.

The extended forecast for the area on AccuWeather.com shows highs mostly in the high 50- to upper 60-degree range, topping out at 70 degrees on the last two days of the month.

Read the original article from Visalia Times-Delta.