UPDATED: Packing on hold to assess California citrus damage

12/11/2013 06:03:00 PM
Mike Hornick

(UPDATED COVERAGE Dec. 12) As California citrus growers endured more than a week of low overnight temperatures, shippers agreed to hold shipments of fruit harvested after December 10 for 48 hours to give authorities time to inspect for damaged product at 81 facilities.

“Those inspections will continue as long as the industry deems they’re beneficial,” said Bob Blakely, director of industry relations at Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual. “It’s a voluntary step in addition to the inspections the state normally does after fruit is packed. Normally it would not be inspected prior to.”

Harvesting continued as growers focused on the warmer sections of their groves. The packing hold on each new load, recommended by the California Citrus Advisory Committee, reflected a consensus of San Joaquin Valley growers, industry representatives and regulators to keep damaged mandarin and navel oranges off the fresh market.

The scope of losses is still being determined but will range from major to manageable depending on location and variety, according to California Citrus Mutual.

Enough harvested fruit was on hand to supply the market through the holiday season without affecting consumer prices, according to the trade group. But by week’s end price hikes on navels had begun to hit the supply chain.

“We increased our prices by 7% to 10% on the mid-sized (navels) for our bag program,” Brian LaForest, owner of the Molly’s Sun Select brand and sales manager for fruit commodities at Hudsonville, Mich.-based Superior Sales Inc., said Dec. 12.

“Our navel supplies are very low right now from our grower partners due to the fact we had very little labor to work with because there was a rush to pick clementines late last week and early this week,” LaForest said.

“We’ve raised the prices at least a couple dollars a carton,” said Francisco Ilic, salesman at Dinuba, Calif.-based King Fresh Produce LLC. “The freeze is helping navel prices. The first thing that goes is the small fruit, the clementines. As that’s taken off the market, there’s more interest in navels.”

Other factors shape navel prices, Ilic said. “Chile had a freeze too,” he said. “They should be bringing a lot of tree fruit in at this time of year, but that’s not going to happen now. They’re going to be light.”

“We’re just going to wait to get through this event, then pick up the pieces and decide where we’re going to go from here,” Doug Carman, vice president of farming for Los Angeles-based Paramount Citrus, which markets mandarins under the Wonderful Halos label, said Dec. 11. “We’re fighting the frost and developing a game plan but don’t have one in place yet. The frost isn’t over yet.”

The market won’t be out of fruit picked before the freeze until sometime the week of Dec. 16, Blakely said. “By then inspectors will have been evaluating the fruit that went through the freeze for several days, and they’ll have a good idea of the quality,” he said.

Temperatures reached the low 20s in parts of the valley during the Dec. 4-10 cold spell. For Dec. 11-12 the National Weather Service forecast lows of 31 and 32 degrees respectively in Reedley with a slight warming trend to follow.

State and county inspectors are checking groves as well as packinghouses. Field inspections are planned for more than 200,000 acres in Fresno, Kern and Tulare counties. The aim is to eliminate most damaged fruit before harvesting.

“Nobody knows what the final numbers are going to be,” LaForest said. “For the government to be so concerned that the consumer may get inferior product, it means there’s fruit out there they don’t like and they want to make sure it doesn’t go to market.”

“Although temperatures are now on the upswing, the compound effect of a seven-day freeze event has made the fruit more susceptible to damage at higher temperature points,” Citrus Mutual president Joel Nelsen said in a news release.

Damaged mandarins and navels will be shipped to juice plants, Nelsen said, which is likely to cover harvesting costs only.

Many packinghouses have installed scanners in recent years that quickly identify and remove damaged fruit from lines, said Kevin Severns, chairman of California Citrus Mutual and general manager of the Orange Cove-Sanger Citrus Association.

Frost protection costs through the first seven days of the cold temperatures totaled about $32.4 million. Irrigation and wind machines can add a few degrees to grove temperatures.

California produces 85% of U.S. fresh citrus year-round. San Joaquin Valley citrus crops are valued at about $1.5 billion.

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