Mandarin crops expand markets for citrus fruit


Issue Date: December 21, 2011
By Kate Campbell
As Placer County citrus fruit grower Tom Aguilar wraps up the mandarin harvest and packing season, above, he is also harvesting navel oranges from groves near Penryn.
Photo/Kate Campbell
In Placer County, where farmers grow nearly a dozen varieties of mandarins, groves have increased by several hundred acres in recent years and yields are growing as trees mature.
Photos/Kate Campbell

Photos/Kate Campbell

From the frosty Sierra foothills to the expansive plains of Kern County, California citrus growers are busy harvesting their crops. The mandarin harvest is nearly complete, while the navel orange harvest is just under way.

"Although we don't have good statistics on mandarin production, we see it as a bright spot for our industry," said Joel Nelsen, California Citrus Mutual president. "We have so much nonbearing acreage that's coming into production and so many bearing acres that are getting older and producing more fruit."

He described mandarins as a commodity that's re-inventing itself.

"Mandarins are going to be the second-largest citrus commodity within two years," he said. "There's no doubt. Only navels will exceed it."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture 2010 citrus acreage report for California shows there are nearly 39,000 acres of mandarins, compared to about 44,000 acres for lemons, the current No. 2 citrus commodity—but there are twice as many nonbearing mandarin acres planted as lemons.

In Placer County, where nearly a dozen mandarin varieties are grown on small acreage, groves have increased by several hundred acres in recent years. The number of mandarin farmers has grown from a handful to more than 30, with more new farmers entering the business, said mandarin grower Tracy Chimenti of Penryn, secretary of the Mountain Mandarin Growers' Association.

Although mandarins were first planted in Placer County in the 1880s, the crop suffered through years of crippling freezes and serious plant disease problems. But now the region, nestled in the hills near Auburn, has been undergoing a renaissance, and the California Department of Food and Agriculture has just provided the association with a $110,000 market development grant to expand consumer interest in mandarins and help build sales.

Citrus growers Tony and Noreen Aguilar and their son Tony Jr. have about 12 acres planted in mandarins. The family has been farming in Placer County since 1912 and began planting mandarins in the 1960s in the area historically called the "Citrus Colony."

"But what we're doing here isn't your grandfather's farming," Noreen Aguilar said. "It's not like the days when you took your fruit to the packing sheds, saw it off on trains to who knows where. Maybe you earned some money at the end of the season, maybe not."

Today, the family sells about 60 percent of their mandarins directly from the ranch and 40 percent to wholesalers. Although there are many mandarin varieties and hybrids, a number of mountain growers produce Okitsu Wase, or early Satsumas, and the later ripening Owari Satsuma.

In the San Joaquin Valley, the "Cutie" mandarin is grown in two varieties—Clementines available November to January and Murcotts, available February through April.

For the first time, Cuties are being shipped coast-to-coast and California grower-shippers are supporting the expanded distribution with a kid-friendly website and the offer of a $150,000 college scholarship. Marketing Cuties is a joint venture among Paramount Citrus, Sun Pacific and Fowler Packing.

Last crop year, mandarins saw a 40 percent increase in value, to about $170 million. But navel oranges remain California's top citrus crop, with last year's crop valued at more than $600 million. The state's farmers produce about 85 percent to 90 percent of the nation's navel oranges and about the same percentage of its fresh-market valencias, according to the Sunkist Growers cooperative.

While the mandarin harvest is nearly complete and the crop is almost sold out, Nelsen of Citrus Mutual estimated that only about 10 percent of the state's nearly 135,000 acres of navel oranges has been harvested, primarily because cold weather has slowed fruit coloring and maturity.

"The fruit looks good," Nelsen said. "It's of larger size than this time last year. Everybody keeps talking about a smaller crop, but it's not that small and we're off to a good start."

He said last year saw the largest navel crop in state history, so he isn't surprised this year's crop is a bit smaller—estimated at 80 million to 84 million cartons, compared to about 93 million cartons for the 2010-11 marketing season.

The outlook for the crop is bullish, Nelsen said, thanks in part to positive export demand. About 20 percent of the California navel orange crop is exported each year to international markets.

"We're pleasantly surprised at how good it is," he said. "We're seeing demand from Japan and from Korea, where the free-trade agreement will help."

Tulare County navel orange grower Larry Peltzer said he has picked very little fruit so far this season.

"We try to carry our fruit on the trees past the first of the new year to garner better market prices," he explained.

With a deep yawn, Peltzer said that due to cold temperatures in recent weeks, he'd been patrolling the groves at night, checking sensors, turning on water and firing up wind machines to prevent freeze damage.

With the volume produced on the family-owned ranch, he said they try to keep fruit on the trees and manage harvest throughout the season to prevent a backup at packinghouses.

"Mandarins are having a greater impact in the market," said Peltzer, who is president of the Tulare County Farm Bureau. "But our major stock remains in navel and valencia oranges. We still see plenty of opportunity there."

Overall, Harris Ranch farm manager Rod Radke said it looks like a higher quality year for navel oranges.

"Harvest is slower to get going this year than in the past, due to weather conditions," Radke said. "But, industry-wide, we're looking at market prices that reflect the quality, which is fairly strong.

"Our fruit goes all over the world," he said. "We grow fruit for everybody and they're stepping up to buy."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.