By TIM HEARDEN

Capital Press

Nearly 81 million cartons of California navel oranges were produced in the past year, obliterating last year's mark of 64 million cartons.

Growers were able to use about 84 percent of the crop that came off the trees as fresh fruit, said Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for the Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual.

Between 18 million and 19 million cartons were exported, or about 23 percent of the crop, Blakely said.

"It turned out to be one of the most successful seasons we had in a long time," he said. "From very early in the season, we had excellent eating quality. The fruit matured early."

The crop yield numbers fall short of the record, as nearly 100 million cartons were harvested several seasons ago, Blakely said.

But the industry had expected since last fall that this season would be among the best ever. At the start of the season, the National Agricultural Statistics Service projected that 80 million cartons would be produced during 2009-10. A carton weighs 37.5 pounds.

The optimism only intensified last fall when government maturity inspectors finished their work by late November because they'd found that the fruit was already at an optimum flavor.

That sweetness was a hallmark of California navels throughout the season.

"The flavor was just exceptionally good with respect to what we've had some other years," Blakely said. "Once that got out into the marketplace and consumers got a taste of it, that brought them back. Even before Christmas we started seeing repeat business."

In addition, a cool spring pushed harvest season well into the summer. The picking and shipping of navels usually wrap up around the first of July, but this year, some growers were still moving fruit until the end of the month.

The breakdown in quality was 60 percent fancy and 24 percent choice, with the rest going into byproducts or juice, Blakely said. The normal utilization rate is between 75 percent and 80 percent, he said.

Growers expect a slightly larger yield in 2010-11, Blakely said, although official estimates won't be out for a few more weeks.

Online

California Citrus Mutual: www.cacitrusmutual.com

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