Orange growers assess drought impact on crop
By Kate Campbell
Workers at the Orange Cove-Sanger Citrus Association pack navel oranges as harvest begins. Growers and packer-shippers say the drought and hot summer helped concentrate sweetness, and fruit quality is good, but sizing is off. The fruit has been slow to size, particularly in production areas where irrigation water is limited or unavailable.
Workers sort fruit by size before packing for shipment. Because fruit is sold by weight, marketing experts say consumers may welcome smaller fruit because they will be able to purchase a larger number of pieces per pound.
With early navel oranges arriving at citrus packinghouses in the San Joaquin Valley, officials are reporting good quality fruit, but relatively smaller sizes, said Orange Cove-Sanger Citrus Association marking manager David Christopherson.
This is one of those years that drives citrus farmers nuts, said Rod Radke, who grows navel oranges in Fresno County. Early harvest reports indicate good-quality oranges in terms of shape and sweetness, but the drought and lack of irrigation water are being blamed for slow and uneven fruit sizing.
"It's hard to figure out how much crop is going to make it to market, because there are so many variables," Radke said. "It's not simple arithmetic."
Instead, he calls it a complicated calculus equation, with Xs, Ys and Zs that don't always add up. Radke said the spring citrus bloom was strong, "but we know we can't count on a good bloom for a huge crop."
Because citrus trees are semitropical plants, he noted, "they're very sensitive to weather and water—and both have been challenging this year."
The initial 2014-15 navel orange crop forecast by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in September was for near-average production levels. The federal survey estimated the harvest at about 78 million cartons, off slightly from the 81 million cartons produced in 2013-14.
Survey data, however, indicated fruit size of 2.205 inches in circumference was somewhat low compared to the five-year average of 2.256.
When the survey was released, California Citrus Mutual President Joel Nelsen said the assessment may not have factored in all the variables growers face this year: lack of water, trees removed from production, farmers going out of business and a long, hot summer that may have helped reduce fruit size.
If growers have gotten a crop through to this point, they're now concerned about getting rain to help the fruit size, said Radke, who is a member of the California Farm Bureau Federation citrus advisory committee.
"A cold winter means there's a greater need for water to control frost damage. Our wells may be unreliable when it comes to protection," he said. "Another problem is that groundwater won't be recharging during the off months if we're using it for frost protection."
If forecasts for another dry winter prove accurate, it looks as though the state's citrus growers may be in for a long fight. They say holding small fruit through a cold cycle is difficult and could add up to serious damage and losses.
"We're in a tough situation here in Terra Bella Irrigation District," citrus grower Michael McMasters said. "After we were cut off from project water, we didn't get emergency water until May. Unfortunately, I couldn't get the water on fast enough, so all of my navel crop hit the ground. The trees were so dry they couldn't hold the fruit."
The zero irrigation-water allocation from the federal Central Valley Project meant farmers had to turn to emergency water sources secured by local irrigation districts.
"I purchased emergency water at $1,200 an acre-foot, but by the time I got it on the trees it was just too late," McMasters said. "Some growers were able to put enough on early to save their crops, but the fruit size in our irrigation district is small. Everybody put on considerably less water than in a normal year."
He said his Valencia orange crop, which is a summer-harvested fruit, also appeared to be "significantly reduced" in volume, but, he said, "we were able to save our lemon, blood orange and red grapefruit crops. As for my navels, the water was too little, too late."
McMasters said the citrus crop throughout the Terra Bella area, which has been hard hit by water shortages, appears to be seriously impacted in terms of fruit size.
"How much of the crop will size, how much will be marketable, remains to be seen," he said. "But I'm afraid this year smaller-sized fruit will prevail throughout the industry. That may affect marketability. It's going to be a rough season to get through for all of us."
With the return of an adequate water supply, McMasters said, growers could bounce back with a big crop next year. He said citrus growers need rain now, to help the fruit gain size, and adequate irrigation water next year to maintain future production levels.
McMasters said in his area he's seeing hundreds of acres of citrus groves being pushed out—or growers are simply letting the trees die.
"I've got dead groves all around me," he said. "I can imagine if we have another dry winter, the acres that will be removed will likely double. The only thing that will help is rain in January and February. I'm not going to guess what will happen beyond that."
Managers of the Orange Cove-Sanger Citrus Association say they expect a "decent navel crop" this year, though general manager Kevin Severns said the fruit is smaller.
"Potentially, there's a smaller overall crop out there, but there's still a long way to go," said Severns, who is board chairman of California Citrus Mutal. "A lot can happen between now and the end of harvest in June.
"We could see good size growth if we have a good winter with a lot of rain," he said. "If it stays dry, maybe not."
He said packers generally aren't concerned at this point about meeting market demand, noting that peaks and valleys in the harvest process are normal for the navel orange crop.
"But this year has its own set of challenges," he said. "The sizes, actually, are better than we thought they would be. There's still a lot of season to go and a lot can change."
CCM said it believes hot temperatures during the summer created a highly flavorful crop, and county agricultural inspectors also report high fruit-sugar levels with good flavor for fruit now coming into packinghouses. They say exterior quality is also excellent, but there is a lot of undersized fruit in the groves.
California supplies 85 percent of the nation's fresh citrus and navel oranges are one of the state's top crops, valued at more than $721 million a year.
(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.