SACRAMENTO — Stormy weather during the bloom last spring will lead to a smaller overall navel orange crop but with larger fruit in 2017-18, government and industry insiders predict.
Growers are expected to harvest 70 million cartons this season, down from the 75 million produced in 2016-17, according to a National Agricultural Statistics Service objective measurement survey.
The survey found a fruit set per tree of 273, below the five-year average of 348. But the average Sept. 1 diameter of 2.34 inches was above the five-year average of 2.24 inches, according to NASS.
“We’re pretty much in agreement with” the estimate, said Bob Blakely, vice president of California Citrus Mutual. “There’s really a lot of variability as you drive through the Central Valley … The crop seems to be the same or a little better in the south but much lighter in the north. The other thing is there’s a lot of variability from tree to tree and grove to grove.”
Storms that capped off one of the wettest winters in history complicated the navel orange bloom in late March and April, affecting some orchards more than others depending on how far along the trees were in the bloom, Blakely said.
“It’s making it a hard crop to estimate,” he said. “In general, everyone thinks that it’s down and that number (from NASS) is probably a good place to start.”
Last season’s crop fell short of the 81 million cartons projected by NASS and was down considerably from the 91.4 million utilized cartons recorded in 2015-16. A smaller crop in 2016-17 was expected considering the previous season’s big crop and drought-related water shortages during last year’s bloom.
Another small crop with larger fruit sizes could put positive pressure on prices, which are already some of the best that growers have seen in recent years. Prices for mid-size navels, which make up the bulk of the crop, rose to between $15 and $17 per 40-pound carton by the end of last season, up from $10 to $11 in December, Blakely has said.
Growers are getting between $18 and $21 per carton for peak sizes of Valencias as they’re wrapping up their harvest of a projected 15.6-million-carton crop.
“Those are probably the best prices we’ve seen in the last 10 years,” Blakely said.
The price rally is fueled by a continued healthy demand for oranges, and it’s needed by growers whose labor and other input costs keep rising, he said.
“Even though the prices growers are receiving are up, I’m not sure they’re keeping pace with costs,” Blakely said. “Their margins are not increasing as prices go up.”
The navel orange harvest typically starts in mid-autumn and continues until the following summer. This year’s harvest is expected to start in mid-October, Blakely said.