California’s navel orange harvest this year got off to a good start that precluded the need to enforce new early-season maturity standards.

Dave Tomlinson of Tulare County’s Griffith Farms said “We started out with a sweeter piece of fruit” than in years past.

Growers and industry leaders cite excellent growing weather as the reason for generally sweeter and better tasting early citrus.

“This year’s fruit had a very high maturity level for this time of year. There were a lot of heat units during the summer and then cooler nights to bring on color break,” said Joel Nelsen, executive director of California Citrus Mutual.

Maribel Nenna, grower service manager for Corona-College Heights Orange and Lemon Association in Riverside and Porterville, said virtually all samples tested using new early fruit standards easily passed muster.

New citrus maturity standards for navels were in place this season for the first time to keep immature early fruit off the market, ensuring repeat customers.

“Navels are testing much better this year. Maturity levels are higher than last year in the same varieties at the same locations,” said Nenna.

In Kern County, where most of the early navel harvest begins, Ruben Arroyo, county agriculture commissioner, said the new standards have not slowed harvest, which started about two weeks later than normal.

“I don’t think we’ve rejected any loads,” said Arroyo. CDFA spokesman Steve Lyle confirmed that there have been no rejected loads this season.

Gavin Iacono, director of inspections for Tulare County agricultural commissioner’s office, said maturity testing has been under way at the majority of the county’s packinghouses and fruit flavor is meeting the new standard.

In past years, non-sweet early variety navels have been blamed for consumer reluctance to make repeat purchases. Delaying harvest could cut down on early shipping volume, but the industry believes that early losses would be recouped with repeat navel purchases. Growers also believe that better-tasting navels will help them compete with easier-peeling mandarin oranges that hit the early market.

Brim-A

Nelsen said the move to a newer flavor standard is supported by 95 percent of the industry. Last year the CCM board voted unanimously to ask CDFA to adopt the “California Standard,” replacing an 8:1 minimum sugar/acid ratio standard in place since 1915. Simply raising the sugar/acid ratio was not enough. The new California maturity standard is based on research conducted by the Citrus Research Board. The new calculation — called Brim-A — is a better indicator of flavor than a simple sugar/acid ratio minimum. Brim-A measures titratable acids and soluble sugars. The tests for sugar/acid and Brim-A are the same. The difference is the formula for calculating the result.

Newer early navel varieties may more easily reach the higher early season standards. Tomlinson said Griffith Farms’ early varieties, like the Newhall Navel, taste better earlier. Griffith’s earlier varieties are grown on south-facing slopes, blooming and maturing earlier.

Leland Wong, director of marketing for Sunkist Growers, said enforcement of the new maturity standard has had no effect on the cooperative’s harvest this season.

“This is a different type of year. Different fruit matured earlier this year due to the hot summer temperatures. Cold nights the last couple weeks brought out the color,” he said.

Wong said early fruit from the Central Valley ”tasted great. We have the good fortune to have a large crop of good tasting fruit.”

He said the real test for the new standards will come when fruit is slow to mature, and shippers are pressured to meet early demand.

“We’ve been holding our breath on this. The industry has put a lot of effort into explaining and promoting the new standard to growers,” said Nelsen. “Even those who were not enthused about it said, ‘Lets try it.’”