California crop will be smaller, but sugar should be higher

By TIM HEARDEN

Capital Press

SACRAMENTO -- It could be a good year to be an orange grower in California's Central Valley.

The October fruit and tree nut grower price index rose 9 percent from a year ago, and prices for navel oranges were 20 percent higher than in October 2010, according to a USDA report.

With the smaller anticipated California navel crop in 2011-12, prices should remain elevated throughout the marketing year, stated the Fruit and Tree Nuts Outlook published Nov. 29 by the USDA's Economic Research Service.

"A lot of it is just fewer oranges and a lot of export demand," said Kristy Plattner, an ERS agricultural economist. "We're still continuing to export. Americans are having to compete with the export market, which is pushing prices up."

Growers collected an average of $8.26 a box for oranges in October, compared to $6.96 per box a year earlier, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

The picking season for navels in the Golden State began around Nov. 1, about three weeks later than usual because of cool weather. Growers expect to yield about 88 million cartons in the upcoming season, down from nearly 94 million cartons in 2010-11, according to a NASS report.

A grower survey in late summer found an average fruit set per tree of 318, below the five-year average of 353, meaning larger oranges are anticipated. Growers said in November the cool weather had brought out the sugar in their fruit, raising hopes for good quality despite the smaller yield.

Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for the Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual, said it's still a little too early to predict what the harvest will bring in terms of prices.

"Our prices right now are tracking what they have the last several years," he said. "They only start off high in the first couple of weeks and then trail down, and start back up after the holidays. ... We're seeing good prices, better than average on bigger sizes, but we don't have a large percentage of larger sizes."

Consumers paid an average of $1.386 a pound for fresh navel oranges in October, compared to $1.281 a pound in October 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A smaller California orange crop this year will likely help support grower prices, which are likely to remain above the average for the last decade, the ERS report predicts.

Online

Fruit and Tree Nuts Outlook: http://www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/FTS/2011/11Nov/FTS-350.pdf

http://1.usa.gov/tiLMNX

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