Storms slow harvest of short navel crop, push up prices

Capay, Calif., navel orange grower Bev Seale suffered some crop damage from high winds in recent weeks, she said. Other growers have had to contend with muddy ground in groves and had to treat their trees for fungus that can develop from heavy rains.

CAPAY, Calif. — Winter storms are disrupting the harvest of navel oranges in California, but the slower pace is helping the fruit gain in price.

For Bev Seale, who grows navels in the mid-Sacramento Valley, the high winds that came with several storms in January caused trees to lose up to half their oranges, she said.

“The weather has been unmerciful on my crop,” Seale said. “The flavor is wonderful. The oranges sized up beautifully. But this year I’ve probably lost about half my oranges on the ground.”

Such damage has been isolated, however. In the prime growing region in the San Joaquin Valley, growers are mostly grappling with muddy orchard floors and having to apply treatments against the fungus that can come with heavy rains, said Bob Blakely, vice president of California Citrus Mutual.

“It’s disrupted the harvesting schedule,” Blakely said. “They’ve been able to get in and get the market supplied. It’s made for some muddy conditions, but they’re getting the crop out.”

The crop was already turning out to be smaller than originally estimated, he said. Going into the season, growers were expecting an 81-million-carton crop, down from the 88 million cartons weighing 1.76 million tons that came out of groves in a weather-bolstered 2015-2016 season, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service office in Sacramento.

The smaller crop wasn’t a surprise considering last year’s abundance, but it’s turning out to be as much as 18 percent below last year’s production, Blakely said.

“It’s sizing, but it sized slower,” he said. “We don’t have an abundance of large fruit, and big fruit makes more boxes. We’re seeing really good quality right now and the fruit is eating well.”

A silver lining for growers is that the slow pace and undersized crop has pushed up prices. Mid-sized oranges, which make up the bulk of the crop, have risen $1 a box since December and are now between $11 and $12 a box, Blakely said.

“I think we’re going to see that continue to come up gradually,” he said.

Prices typically increase after New Year’s Day, but this year the increase was especially needed, he said.

“Prices had been lower than they had been for two or three years,” Blakely said. “They were getting to the point that growers were reaching a break-even or loss scenario, so we needed to see the price move up. I would expect prices will continue to rise in the next few weeks, especially as the market realizes this crop is going to be short.”

The navel harvest typically runs from mid-autumn until the following summer. Early in the season, pickers usually focus on blocks with larger fruit and leave smaller orchards on trees to continue to grow, as smaller fruit often must be discounted to move it out.

The harvest is now about 35 percent complete, Blakely said.

Recommended for you