California and Arizona citrus growers never forget freeze years. They just compare them.

However, last year’s devastating January Western citrus freeze is being helped to fade away with one of the largest, best quality crops in recent years now being harvested.

Bob Blakely, California Citrus Mutual’s director of grower services, believes the 2007-2008 Navel crop could be on the verge of one of the largest in history. Trees are yielding nice large fruit.

“We’re seeing good strength in export markets for Navels,” Blakely said. “We’re running into some resistance in the domestic market since Clementine oranges are having a larger impact on the domestic Navel market due to the Clementine’s increasing popularity.”

According to the latest California crop production report from the California Agricultural Statistics Service (CASS), this season’s California Navel orange production is forecast at 96 million cartons, up 12 percent from the Dec. 1 forecast, and 41 percent higher than last year’s crop. This season’s Valencia forecast is 30 million cartons, unchanged from the October forecast, yet 36 percent over last year’s crop.

CASS’ California lemon production forecast is 34 million cartons, 6 percent above last year, and 3 percent higher than the October forecast. Tangerines are forecast at 10.2 million cartons, up 76 percent from last year. California grapefruit could fill 10 million cartons this year, 25 percent higher than last year.

Located between Dinuba and Orange Cove, Calif., is Greenleaf Farms, a 1,400-acre operation that grows lemons, minneolas, and late Navels. Farm partner Nick Hill said Minneola production is about 25 percent higher than last year. Navels are up 10 percent to 15 percent conservatively.

“Navel quality is great and it looks like it will be a decent year,” Hill said. “Size has come on real strong which will make a world of difference on the percentage of pack in the field.”

The quality of the Navels coming off trees now is good and demand is strong. “The taste is excellent,” according to Tom Wollenman, a third generation citrus grower and general manager of LoBue Bros. Inc. LoBue has packinghouses in Lindsay and Exeter, Calif.

The fruit exterior is in good condition but not excellent, added Wollenman. Wind damage in the late spring and early to mid summer caused some cosmetic damage to fruit. Also 80-degree temperatures in late October and November created softer rinds later in the season.

“We are concerned that the overall quality may not be there for us in late March and April as we would like,” said Wollenman, a CCM board member.

Strong Navel prices

FOB Navel prices range from $9 to $14 on peak sizes (volume sizes – 113s up to 56s) for fancy fruit. Choice market is $7 to $8 for peak sizes. Because of the short supply, fancy lemons are bringing excellent prices in the $30 to $36 range, said the CCM’s Blakely.

Valencias

Valencias have a good fruit set now. The crop could increase 30 percent to 35 percent this year, in part due to Valencia losses from last year’s freeze. California production could average 27 to 30 million cartons, Blakely said.

Post freeze

Post freeze analysis is another citrus industry pastime. “The January 2007 freeze was not an equal opportunity freeze for the citrus industry,” Wollenman said. “Some people quite frankly made more money than they ever have (even with the freeze) while others lost 100 percent of everything.”

California Citrus Mutual (CCM), Exeter, Calif. stands by its original post freeze estimate that the cold snap cost California’s citrus industry about $800 million, according to Blakeley. About half the losses were in Navel oranges.

Freeze about microclimates

The 2007 freeze was all about microclimates, Wollenman said. Numerous microclimates make up California’s Central Valley citrus belt that runs about 130 miles long and 10 miles wide from south of Bakersfield, north through Fresno, and into Madera. Warmer areas referred to as “banana belts” came through the freeze in good shape while others suffered 100 percent frost damage.

“From Porterville down to Bakersfield there were 100 percent losses on many blocks,” Wollenman said. “We had more fruit in the traditionally warmer areas.”

“At first we assumed it would be a total wipeout or at least enough that insurance would have to get us through last year,” Hill said. “As it turned out, the freeze damage was not as bad as first thought. We picked quite a bit more fruit than we had anticipated.”

Inversion, wind machines, and irrigation helped insulate citrus groves from a likely wipe out.

Another reason damage was minimal was sugars were up and the fruit was hardened off. “Meanwhile the guy five to six miles away was totally wiped out,” said Hill who serves as CCM’s board chairman.

Lemon losses

The segment of California and Arizona’s citrus industries that took the brunt of the freeze was lemons. Hardest hit were lemons grown in the desert growing areas of California’s Imperial County and Coachella Valley, plus Arizona’s Yuma and Maricopa counties.

The desert lemon harvest was two-thirds to three-quarters complete when freezing temperatures blew into the orchards, yet what was left on the trees was devastated. The desert lemon harvest generally begins in late August and runs until mid-January.

“One-half to two-thirds of the lemons remaining on the trees were lost in desert growing areas,” said Bill Spencer, president of Associated Citrus Packers, Yuma, Ariz. About 90 percent of Arizona’s lemon crop is grown in Yuma County.

The 2007 freeze killed tree leaves. “After a freeze, lemon trees come back in the spring and produce leaves first but sometimes don’t have enough energy to generate many flowers to make fruit. The current lemon crop is light, started late, and will finish early,” Spencer said.

The desert lemon harvest is likely to yield about one-quarter to one-third less than a normal year and the 2007 frost damage could impact trees for several years.

The lemon orchards hardest hit on the Yuma mesa could require yet another year to recover from fruit wood damage. The vast majority of the mesa’s lemon acreage should produce a normal crop next year, Spencer said.

At Greenleaf Farms, colder versus warmer pockets during the 2007 freeze determined damage and yield.

“We’re picking lemons now and until we get done picking we won’t know how much will be lost. We keep lowering our estimate,” Hill said. His best guess is a 35 percent loss this year from last year’s freeze.

“It’ll probably come back with a very strong crop next season. The damage didn’t go that deep in the trees. In my case the outside budding wood was damaged which has all been replaced this year. I’ll probably come back with an extremely good crop next year.”

At Justice Brothers Ranch in Waddell, Ariz., located west of Phoenix, DeWayne Justice grows about 75 acres of lemons, Navels, Valencias, ruby red grapefruit, and minneolas.

Justice lost his entire remaining lemon crop when the freeze hit — thanks in part to a thief that stole the copper from the irrigation pump on the night before the freeze hit — halting efforts to save some fruit through orchard irrigation.

Other citrus losses included Navels down 25 percent and 40 percent Minneola losses. Spared were the Valencias and grapefruit.

“Lost income from the freeze was $30,000 to $40,000. It’s not much money to some, but it was a pretty good little jag for a small outfit like us,” Justice said.

In late January 2008 two to three lonely lemons dangled from Justice’s lemon trees like fish out of water. The Navel crop was a little light while grapefruit looked promising.

email: cblake@farmpress.com