Signature citrus crop appears to lose little acreage to entrant

By CECILIA PARSONS

For the Capital Press

The navel orange versus seedless mandarin competition envisioned three years ago isn't shaping up as expected.

Those cute, little "easy peel" mandarins have made inroads on citrus shelf space in grocery stores as predicted, but industry leaders say the navel orange is holding its own with consumers.

"So far, they co-exist," said Al Bates, general manager of Sun Pacific, one of the largest mandarin growers and packers in California. Sun Pacific also grows and packs navel oranges and Bates said both have good markets. There is pressure from mandarins on the market, but navels won't become obsolete, Bates said.

Navel oranges, the signature crop among California citrus, remain the biggest player with about 134,000 acres statewide -- a figure that has been fairly constant for the past few years. Mandarin acres are on the upswing with 40,000 acres and counting. The objective of the entire citrus industry is to deliver a good piece of fruit that the consumer wants and will buy again, Bates said.

Good returns on mandarins have drawn in many new growers in addition to citrus growers looking to expand. Tom Wollenman, general manager for LoBue Bros. Citrus in Exeter, said seedless mandarin returns per bin are high compared to navels. This year, averaging from the first of the season, a 900-pound bin of navels was fetching around $120 for growers. A bin of mandarins returns in the $250 to $350 range. At 30 to 50 bins per acre, it is easy to see why stone fruit growers are pulling old trees and planting mandarins.

Navels aren't going to fade away in the face of mandarins, Wollenman said, because of the strength of the export market. With all the mandarins planted in the last few years, he also envisions much larger supply with lower returns per bin.

Andrew Brown, a fourth-generation citrus grower from the Orange Cove area, is one of those joining the mandarin ranks, but he is realistic about the future of the crop. When supply grows and the "new' wears off, growers will have to deliver a good tasting piece of fruit or they will lose customers, Brown said.

Brown said he saw a window of opportunity for mandarins in his farming operation. He has ground that can produce export-quality navels, but on other ground he determined that early season mandarins were a better bet than early navels.

In this year's navel versus mandarin competition, weather was a great equalizer.

Industry reports said about a third of the mandarin crop was affected by the cold in December and January while navel damage was less than 10 percent.

Citrus growers spent some long nights in December watching temperatures and turning on wind machines and water to boost temperatures in their groves. Navel growers have a little more leeway: The trees can stand 28 degrees for a short time.

Mandarins sustain damage at higher temperatures. They start frost protection measures when the temperature hits 31 degrees.

"Mandarins are a more difficult and expensive crop to grow in the winter," said Joel Nelsen, president of the industry group California Citrus Mutual.

Freezes also affect mandarins differently than navels. After a freeze event, county inspectors and packers try to keep damaged fruit off the market. Fruit is cut to detect freeze damage or left on the tree longer. If it has been damaged by frost, it will have time dry out and be easily detected in the washing process at the packinghouse.

Navel damage is generally found in the middle of the fruit during the cutting process. But this year mandarin damage was showing up differently. Wollenman said the bottom of the fruit is affected rather then the center, where cuts are made. Bates said growers spent a lot of money making sure frost-damaged fruit didn't get to market.

The industry will have to change their sampling methods to adapt to the difference with mandarins, Wollenman said.

Mandarin growers also incur extra costs netting their trees. Mandarins are sold as "seedless" fruit, and the value drops if seeds are found in fruit samples. The W. Murcott variety of mandarin, a major variety in the San Joaquin Valley, develops seeds when the trees are pollinated by bees. Growers can't keep bees out, so they cover the trees with netting before blooms open in April. The cost of the material and labor adds up. The netting has also been blamed for lower yields in Murcotts. A newer variety, the Tango, does not have to be netted to be seedless

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