Frost smacked down the upstart easy peelers in California this season, while small sizes and supply defined the navel orange crop. Neither citrus variety reached its potential in the marketplace, but growers and packers did learn some lessons.

Speaking at the recent annual Citrus Showcase in Visalia, citrus growers and marketers reviewed their experiences with cold and unusually dry weather this season.

Mandarins, now the citrus industry’s second largest sector, suffered through its first freezing season with losses up to 50 percent. Navels were also affected, but losses (30 percent to 35 percent) were lower than mandarins.

Al Bates, general manager of Sun Pacific, said no one realized the susceptibility to frost damage of the Murcott and Tango varieties. This was the first year that significant bearing acreage was affected by freezing temperatures, and growers admitted they had a steep learning curve when it came to keeping poor quality fruit out of the marketplace.

Bates said damage ranged from 50 percent in some blocks in the Ivanhoe area to 9 percent in the Ducor area.

The season did give mandarin growers an opportunity to study how to keep damaged fruit out of the market. Some are questioning the current cutting system, patterned after navels, which scores a center cut for freeze damage. Some growers report that the more pronounced damage is in the bottom third cut. The California Citrus Advisory Committee has asked for more data to analyze from this year’s harvest.

Fred Berry of Mulholland Citrus said the season started with a late and very prolonged bloom that resulted in a crop with wide-ranging maturity.

“On the same tree there would be fruit that was ready to pick and fruit that needed two more weeks to ripen,” said Berry. The sugar levels were high, but the acid levels remained higher than expected at harvest. Dry weather didn’t help with fruit sizing and the industry was left with a high percentage of small fruit. Berry said 32 was the peak size this year and 30 percent to 35 percent of Mulholland’s fruit was small.

Berry said the mandarin growing area from Kern to Madera was hit by the cold. Thinner rinds leave the fruit vulnerable, plus many of the Mandarin trees have been planted in colder areas and are higher freeze risk.

Finding damaged fruit also stymied packers and growers. Berry said that at times the only indication of damage was an off flavor.

Bates said the short time the fruit is on the tree complicates matters. Freeze-damaged fruit doesn’t hang on the tree long enough to dry out for detection. “One cut may not be enough to find damage. A lot of blasted fruit got through,” Bates said.

Tremendous costs

Citrus growers spent more money on frost protection this year than the last five years combined, said Tom Avinelis of AgriCare.

Avinelis noted dew points were much lower this year and that means more frost. Traditionally warmer areas had some of the lowest temperatures while noted colder areas were warmer. That varied from night to night, he added.

Growers discovered mandarins sustained significant damage at temperatures that don’t affect navels. This prompted growers to start wind machines at 31 degrees, higher than they would for navels, Avinelis said.

Using fan jet or micro sprinklers combined with wind machines gave the crop a better chance of turning back the frost, he noted.

Even though freezing temperatures didn’t affect navels to the same extent of the mandarins, achieving higher sugar levels held the crop back, said Tony Lombardi, general manager of Porterville Citrus.

“This was one of the most difficult years. Sugar levels were all over the board,” he said. That situation continued into February. Sizes were also smaller. On the bright side, packers and growers knew they were dealing with a crop that was 10 percent lighter than last year’s crop.

The start of the navel season was difficult with the erratic sugar levels, plus an overlap with Valencias and imports impacting the East Coast.

Bates said navel packers are ahead of the game at this point of the season because of the smaller crop. The challenge is selling small fruit domestically, he said. Decreased mandarin volume created opportunities for navel sales. April should be strong, Bates said, as exports to Korea kick in. There are limited export markets for mandarins, he added, with Australia and Japan taking more fruit.

Marketing mandarins after a freeze is risky. Lots that aren’t rejected initially may still have questionable fruit. Nevertheless, Berry said packers must strive to keep damaged fruit off the market.

With 25,000 acres of Murcotts in the ground, protecting markets is vital, Bates agreed. If packers start sending marginal quality fruit, the industry will lose market.

“We want to maintain label integrity so you have to make some tough decisions with growers,” Berry said.