Scott Mabs, director of growers services for California Citrus Mutual, which represents 800 growers with more than 110,000 acres of citrus, says less than 10 percent of the navel crop remains unharvested.

"Market prices for navel oranges are improving as supplies become tighter," he says. "The navel crop harvest is almost complete, and a number of packing plants that deal only with navels are in the process of shutting down for the season."

Doug McCashen, director of sales operations for Sunkist, says his firm too is wrapping up its navel season. "We’ll probably ship for another two to four weeks, but certainly by the middle of May we will be completely done."

The navel crop was a little lighter this year, which McCashen attributes to the warmest May on record in the San Joaquin Valley in 2001. "The trees bloomed in late March and April, and then after bloom set the heat destroyed some blooms," he says. "That decrease in blooms meant a bigger fruit size, but less fruit overall."

Navel orange prices for this market year have generally trended a little stronger on a per carton basis for the general market due to a 15 percent decrease in fruit numbers, according to McCashen. "We’re typically at $8.50 per carton, but this year we’ve been closer to $9.50 or $10."

Offset production

"From a grower’s perspective, the higher prices will offset their decrease in production per acre," he says. "In comparison to last year the majority of growers will do a little better this year."

Mabs says navel orange growers, for the most part, evaded any quality-related production problems during the most recent six-month growing season. "Weather always plays a huge factor in citrus production, but everything came together appropriately this year," he says.

Unseasonably warm fall weather could have prevented much of the navel orange crop from developing a tough skin, fueling the potential for clear rot in some citrus producing regions. Clear rot, which results in a glassy look on the outside of an orange, is usually caused by a weak rind allowing damage to be incurred to the fruit.

"The navel crop was questionable for a period of time this growing season, and while nobody can put a finger on the reason for that exactly, weather conditions were a factor," he says. "The warmer weather in the fall didn’t toughen the oranges up enough, but we believe the cold winter weather helped counteract any potential clear rot problem."

Production down

According to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, U.S. navel production for 2002 was projected at 161 million boxes, down substantially from the last two years. USDA estimates that Arizona’s navel production for 2002 will hit 300,000 boxes down 180,000 boxes from a year ago. California production of navel oranges is estimated by USDA to reach 32 million boxes in the 2001-2001 marketing year, down 4 million from last year.

While the navel harvest is winding down, Valencia oranges are just now coming off the trees. "So far, the quality of Valencia oranges is good, sizes are good, and everything seems to be fine," Mabs says.

Mainly an export market at this point in the year, Mabs says domestic buyers won’t turn to Valencias until the supply of navels has been extinguished.

McCashen says Sunkist is currently packing the 2002 crop of Valencias, beginning in the Arizona desert area, then moving into the California Coachella Valley area, followed by a move up into the southern and central California valley.

While overall crop numbers are expected to be similar to years past, McCashen says he’s seeing a shift in production regions. "California is on par with where it has been the last five years, but urban sprawl is shifting citrus production out of some areas, and into others."

McCashen expects the 2002 Valencia crop to be made up mostly of mid- to smaller-sized oranges, peaking at a count of 113 oranges per standard carton. "That’s about normal. At this point, the Valencia crop looks good. It’s not a limb buster crop, and it’s not a crop failure," he says.

Price optimism

Although still too early to tell, McCashen is optimistic Valencias prices will hit $8.50 to $9.50 per carton on average. "We will have to wait and see what happens, but that’s what we’re shooting for. There’s still 90 percent of the crop remaining on the trees at this point."

According to USDA, 2002 Valencia orange output is predicted at 350,000 75-pound boxes in Arizona and 23 million 75-pound boxes in California. That’s a drop of 70,000 boxes in Arizona, but an increase of 2 million boxes in California.

The USDA April 1 citrus forecast for lemons is predicted to total 3.1 million 76-pound boxes in Arizona, down 70,000 boxes from last year. In California, lemon production for 2002 is projected at 22 million 76-pound boxes, about level with 2001 production.