Numbers do not always tell the complete story. The latest California citrus crop estimates from the USDA-NASS California field office do not accurately reflect the reduction in West Coast citrus going to the fresh market and being diverted to juice or destroyed due to the devastating January freeze, according to an industry spokesman.

“The release of the crop estimate in March—a month earlier than normal--makes it seem like there was no freeze disaster in California,” said Bob Blakeley, director of grower services for California Citrus Mutual, Exeter, Calif.

“The crop size estimate disregards the issue of utilization,” said Blakeley. Utilization is the number of cartons of California citrus packed for the fresh market versus oranges diverted for juice or destroyed. Normally California citrus packers utilizes about 85 percent or more for the fresh market. This season the freeze has dropped that to as low as 60 percent.

USDA-NASS’ latest forecasts for the 2006-07 Navel orange crop released in early March is for a crop of 54.0 million cartons, but utilization for the fresh market likely will be 10 million cartons less than that.

However, California Citrus Mutual (CCM) believes the USDA-NASS’ January Navel estimate of 64 million cartons was far too low. Blakeley says the industry believes it was closer to 75 million cartons. About 25 to 30 million cartons of what the industry says is a 75-million carton Navel crop are being harvested for juice or dropped on the orchard floor to rot in the wake of the freeze.

USDA-NASS said only that, “A larger than usual percentage of oranges will be harvested for juice this year.”

“The fresh market is California’s market” and USDA figures do not reflect the loss there, said Blakeley.

Sending oranges to the juice plant is at best a break even proposition for California producers. Some fruit was so heavily damaged it was not worth juicing.

Roughly 33 million cartons of Navels were harvested before the freeze. After the freeze only about 13 million cartons escaped freeze damage and were suitable for the fresh market, according to CCM. This leaves a fresh market utilization estimate of roughly 46 million cartons, 48 million cartons less than utilized last season.

Although the USDA-NASS lowered the Valencia orange crop estimate by 23 percent from early forecasts, packers say the issue is not crop size. Again, it is crop utilization.

The 2006-07 Valencia orange crop is forecast to be 20 million cartons, 23 percent below the previous 2006-07 forecast and 26 percent below last season’s revised utilization of 27 million cartons.

Packers have been reluctant to estimate the Valencia crop loss. In past freezes, Valencias recovered from the freeze better than most expected.

Blakeley said the federal crop reporting service Valencia estimate is “premature. The crop report that came out in March this year normally comes out in April. We will have a better handle on the total citrus crop by then than we did in early March.”

Blakeley said Citrus Mutual challenges all the March crop estimates because they do not take in the utilization factor.

USDA-NAAS estimates the 2006-07 California grapefruit forecast is 9.60 million cartons, down 20 percent from both the January forecast and last season’s final estimate. According to NASS, damage to the grapefruit crop varied widely by variety and location. The Oro Blanco variety grapefruit harvest neared completion in the Central Valley by early March with heavy culling due to ice marking from the freeze. The Rio Red variety harvest was on-going in the desert areas. According to NASS, Rio Reds seemed to escape damage from the freezing temperatures in most areas. Quality was generally good with downgrading due to wind scar and sheepnose. The Pummelo harvest continued in the Central Valley. Pummelo fruit with ice marking was eliminated.

The NASS 2006-07 lemon forecast is 33 million cartons, 20 percent below the January forecast and 21 percent below last season. Lemons were hit hard by the January freeze, as about 72 percent of the crop remained on trees at the time of the cold spell. Packinghouses moved all fruit picked before the freeze, and picking activities have since slowly increased.

The 2006-07 tangerine NASS forecast is 5.20 million cartons, down 32 percent from the January 2007 forecast and 28 percent below last season. Tangerines also suffered the effects of the freeze in January that hit all of California's citrus crops. Clementines suffered less as the bulk of the crop was picked before the cold spell, according to NASS. Picking of other varieties was put on hold while growers inspected their groves and searched for marketable fruit. The damage to unharvested fruit varied by location. Harvesting activities have since slowly increased.

email: hcline@farmpress.com