Certainty is never part of a farmer's life. For California citrus growers there is more uncertainty than for most California commodities.

Starting with this season, Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, the only certainty is it will be the smallest crop in decades.

The official government estimate says the navel orange crop will be 27 percent smaller than the largest California navel crop ever last season.

Nelsen reported to the 25th annual Agribusiness Management Conference in Fresno, Calif., recently that a small crop does not necessarily mean better citrus grower returns.

It's a question of fruit size; not crop size.

A stifling July heat wave retarded growth, and the industry is nervous that fruit size will not satisfy consumers, noted Nelsen.

“Last year we learned first hand that consumers do not want small oranges,” he said. There is time for fruit size to catch up, but the uncertainty is if the fruit will size.

Fortunately, exterior and interior quality should be good.

“For oranges, cautious optimism is the best catch phrase,” Nelsen said.

The biggest news in the California citrus industry is the development of a mandarin variety industry.

“Call them tangerines, Satsuma's, Clemetine's, murcotts, etcetera, but the bearing acreage is now at 12,000 acres and will soon double,” Nelsen said.

Tonnage will obviously increase significantly over the decade. The question is will it cannibalize orange sales or increase consumption of all citrus.

There are now 140,043 acres of navels in the ground; 12,000 nonbearing.

The record 91-million carton 2005-06 navel season “should not be taken as an unusual event, but rather a preview of seasons to come.”

Mandarins will become more competitive with navels, especially smaller sizes (113 and under).

“Consumers wanting a smaller piece of fruit will more likely buy a mandarin and those wanting an orange want a big orange.”

Production of navels will certainly increase. However, total sales are not. From 57 to 63 million cartons of fresh navels are being sold every year, regardless of how many are produced.

“Unless the industry can affect an increase in orange consumption, utilization is going to go down,” he said.

Ninety million carton crops will become common.

“If the state is producing 90 million and selling 60 million, then 30 million or 30 percent is not going to be packed.”

Therefore, in the future producing a high percentage of good quality large fruit will be required for producers to be economically successful.

“Producers need to understand that without expanded markets, 60 percent to 70 percent utilization will be the norm. Most of the elimination will be orange sizes 113 and smaller.

“Profitable percentages will only be derived from selling a higher percentage of 72s and larger with 88s becoming the breakeven size. Growers with groves producing small fruit year after year will continue to lose money,” he concluded.