By TIM HEARDEN
SACRAMENTO - Big, sweet and juicy navel oranges are headed to supermarket produce aisles in time for Christmas as the harvest in California's Central Valley has been in high gear for about a month.
Growers are reporting good sugar content in their oranges, and many credit new maturity standards set up last spring by the state Department of Food and Agriculture for helping them find the best fruit, said Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for the Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual.
"They're probably as good as they've ever been this time of year," Blakely said. "We had a really good run-up to Thanksgiving, and it looks like we'll have a good Christmas season as well. We're seeing good demand and the quality is outstanding."
Farmers usually start picking navel oranges in late October and keep going until the following spring or early summer. This season's initial forecast was 93 million cartons, of which 90 million are expected to come from the valley, according to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service office here.
That would be an increase from about 83 million cartons taken from the valley last season, Blakely notes. Each box weighs about 40 pounds.
NASS used a survey of growers this summer to predict an average fruit set per tree of 344, above the five-year average of 324. The average diameter on Sept. 1 was 2.196 inches, below the five-year average of 2.254, according to the agency.
"We're dealing with a little bit of size issues right now," Blakely said. "We'd like to see some larger fruit size. I think the rains we got over the weekend now are going to help with that. Typically once we start seeing rain, the fruit starts to size up."
Growers and shippers are giving positive marks to the CDFA's new Standard Scale to measure a navel orange's readiness based largely on brix, or meters of sugar content. The previous standard was based on a sugar-to-acid ratio.
Blakely described the new standards as a "complicated formula" developed after about seven years of research.
"It's more reliable," he said. "It's a much better indicator of what the flavor is going to be."
He also credited favorable weather conditions for contributing to high sugar levels in oranges.
"The two have combined to get us off to a really good start," he said.
California Citrus Mutual: http://www.cacitrusmutual.com/