A profit of about $10,000 per acre for his 2007-2008 W. Murcott mandarin (tangerine) crop brings all smiles to James McFarlane as he scans the financial spreadsheets at Redbanks Farming, Inc. McFarlane hopes for an encore financial performance this year, barring a damaging freeze.

McFarlane, general manager of the 1,200-acre citrus, almond, and wheat operation in Clovis, Calif. (Fresno County), reports his 25 bearing acres of the mostly seedless W. Murcott variety cleared $240,000 in the 2007-2008 crop year.

“That’s about $10,000 per acre in the wallet,” McFarlane said.

Meanwhile his Navel crop cleared about $2,500 per acre which is markedly better than his budgeted return of $400 per acre.

McFarlane received about $16 per 25-pound carton for a single, large mandarin packout last year. His citrus is marketed by Mulholland Citrus in Orange Cove, Calif.

Consumer demand for seedless mandarins has exceeded California’s available supply — propelling the strong prices. McFarlane and other citrus growers are aboard the mandarin planting locomotive, hoping to engineer more bottom lines in the black though increased production.

“A lot of (mostly) seedless mandarin trees are being planted in California so the party will end eventually,” McFarlane said. Yet he believes the window of opportunity remains open for great profits in the short term.

“Five years from now it wouldn’t surprise me if there is an ample supply of seedless mandarins on the market, and we’ll be brought back to earth.”

McFarlane entered the seedless mandarin market in 2001 when he planted 19 acres of the W. Murcott variety. Trees are spaced 10 feet apart with a 20-foot minimum between the rows. Nineteen additional acres of W. Murcott were brought into production in 2004 by grafting over the adjacent block of Early Beck Navel in a 16-by-20 spacing.

About 800 cartons of fruit per acre were harvested in 2004-2005, plus 1,400 cartons/acre in 2005-2006. W. Murcotts are harvested after the coldest winter temperatures.

The January 2007 freeze wiped out McFarlane’s entire 2006-2007 crop. Crop insurance reimbursed him for about 25 percent of the loss which was based on a short-term production history.

“The freeze ruined every piece of W. Murcott fruit,” McFarlane said. “However, if you can get the fruit through the winter, you can make a heck of a lot more money than Navel oranges. Even if you harvest one out of every two W. Murcott crops, generally you’ll be money ahead from growing mid-season Navel varieties.”

The W. Murcott variety bounced back from the freeze with an astonishing 2,500 cartons/acre yield in 2007-2008. “I think that’s about peak production.”

“While the W. Murcott is not a 100 percent seedless variety, we’ve averaged less than one seed per fruit,” McFarlane said. “We get paid top price when we average less than one seed,” McFarlane said.

Redbanks Farming operates two ranches: a citrus-only ranch in Sanger owned and operated by McFarlane’s father, Bill. The Clovis ranch includes almonds, wheat (irrigated and dryland), Navels, and the W. Murcotts.

The W. Murcott requires higher levels of zinc, boron, and manganese in comparison to Navels, McFarlane explains. The W. Murcott produces a heavy tree load.

“We topped our older trees to about 9 feet this past spring, and they have put on 3 feet of new growth since that time. I’ll go out on a limb and say we’ll have to rein them back. The trees need a haircut.”

McFarlane irrigates the W. Murcotts with about 3.5 acre-feet of water annually; mostly with water supplied by the Fresno Irrigation District, plus some well water.

McFarlane will plant the Tango variety this year to complete his planting intentions. The Tango is an irradiated, seedless version of the W. Murcott released by the University of California’s Citrus Breeding Program in 2006.

Joel Nelsen, president, California Citrus Mutual (CCM), Exeter, Calif., says about 25,000 acres of bearing, seedless mandarin trees are now in production in California with even more nonbearing tree acres in the ground.

Seedless mandarin production in Arizona includes one commercial planting near Yuma. Experimental research is underway at the University of Arizona’s Citrus Agricultural Center in Waddell, Ariz.

“I’m extremely bullish on seedless mandarins,” Nelsen said. “It’s a good piece of fruit that’s stimulated some excitement in the marketplace. The California citrus industry is a mature industry, so seedless mandarins are creating a lot of demand.”

“Seedless is in and seeds are out” with consumers. That’s one reason why the summer Valencia orange industry has declined almost 50 percent, Nelsen said.

Major seedless mandarin growing areas include Fresno, Tulare, and Kern counties in California’s San Joaquin Valley (SJV), plus the Coachella and Imperial valleys to the south. The southern SJV generates the most production.

Nelsen expects seedless mandarin production to double over the next few years. Yet he warned against a plethora of varieties entering the market and marketing the varieties against each other.

“One of the problems some of our sister commodities have is too many varieties; each one supposedly better than the other which has led to marketing confusion,” Nelsen said.

“We could find ourselves in that situation with seedless mandarins if customers, marketers, and growers try to one-up each other which actually causes confusion-based price erosion.”

Honey bees are essential to pollination for many California crops. Citrus is also a good overwintering crop for honey bees. A hotly-contested issue in the San Joaquin Valley (SJV) remains bees causing cross pollination from some citrus to seedless mandarins resulting in some seeds in the mandarins.

“This adversely affects the revenue base for seedless mandarin growers,” Nelsen said. “We haven’t had much success in working this issue out.”

Several larger producers, including Sun Pacific and Paramount Citrus, have dominated the seedless mandarin acreage explosion, Nelsen said. Additional acreage will come into production from smaller producers with acreage in the 40 to several hundred acre range.

“The larger producers will have a larger percentage of market shares, but will not have the dominance they once had, Nelsen predicts.

Nelsen remains bullish on Navels based on the orange’s good color, shape, and consistent flavor which has retained domestic and export consumption. The lemon market remains strong with solid fresh market and food service demand.

e-mail: cblake@farmpress.com