How sweet it was.

That’s what many in the navel orange industry are saying in California’s central San Joaquin Valley this year, thanks to fruit that was deemed good-tasting virtually from start to finish of a season that helped make up for some recent lean years.

“This was one of those years that don’t come together very often — one of the best years in a generation,” said Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual.

That exuberance, often rare, came because, “By November, consumers were recognizing they were eating an excellent piece of fruit,” Blakely said. “They saw that from the beginning and there was better repeat business and higher weekly movement.”

It was contrary to some past experiences when shoppers were soured on fruit not yet at premium quality. And the even better news was that the fruit held well on the tree for a season that lasted well into July.

“All around, the crop sized up nicely through the season and hung on the tree,” said Nick Hill, a Dinuba grower who manages citrus and other crops for Greenleaf Farms Inc. “We were picking high quality fruit into July.”

Hill said foreign sales were also good, “They were maybe the best in history; last year we couldn’t buy an export order. The world economy was bad. Korea was in a world of hurt. But the attitude changed this year and to meet quality expectations was nice.”
Moreover, the industry dodged any serious freeze.

“We had one substantially cold night,” Hill said, “but we didn’t have repetitive nights.”

Blakely explained that the California Citrus Advisory Committee has a navel maturity program under which inspectors go out and verify maturity standards to avoid putting fruit on shelves that is not ripe enough. Those inspectors finished their work by late November, deciding to cease mandatory testing early because the fruit was already ripe.

“Some years, ripening is variable and testing may run into January or February,” Blakely said, adding that a cool spring helped navels stay on the tree a little longer.

He said this year’s navel crop appears to match estimates of 80 million 37.5-pound cartons. That’s well above last season’s 64 million cartons. Pricing was consistent, with an average between $10.75 and $11 per carton.

Because of consistent quality, the percentage of fruit that actually made it into a carton – 85 percent – was remarkably high, Blakely said.

As good as the picture was for navels, it was a bit blurred for Valencias.

“The external quality of the Valencias was not as good,” Blakely said. “It was not as pretty a piece of fruit.”

He said only about 70 percent of Valencias were making it into the box.