A sweeter outlook for California's lemon crop
Henry Vega, who farms 65 acres of lemons in Ventura County, shows off some of this year's wonderful crop.
While last year's sub-zero temperatures caused California lemon growers to lose thousands of dollars worth of fruit, there appears to be an upside: Reports from the state's top three lemon-producing districts indicate that the small supply has led to a good price for many who grow this sunny-yellow, yet sensitive fruit.
"The lemon crop is forecasted to be very short so that is a real bright spot in agriculture," said Woodlake lemon grower Chris Lange, who is on the Tulare County Farm Bureau board of directors. "Demand for lemons far exceeds the supply, so lemon prices are strong and forecasted to continue to be strong the whole year."
In the Central Coast growing district, Ventura County lemon grower Henry Vega, who farms 65 acres of lemons, said the per-carton price for lemons is speculated to be in the $18 to $20 range. He is hopeful that the price for lemons will remain at this high level.
"What happens in the lemon sector is we overproduce lemons so when you get rid of the excess you are really in a better sales position, which is what the freeze created," Vega, past president of the Ventura County Farm Bureau, said. "It is a privilege to put food on the table. I'm not looking to get rich, just looking to make a living."
The Central Coast growing season for lemons is typically year-round, lasting from early November through late October. Vega said growers who harvested lemons will have made it through the 2007 season well, with great expectations for this year's season, weather permitting.
"My family's ranch was affected by last year's freeze so we saw a lighter summer crop and that was because many of the blossoms got knocked off, but the larger fruit was able to sustain itself," Vega said. "We were fortunate to make enough volume at a high price to be able to call 2007 a good year."
Looking forward, Vega welcomes the winter rain as long as it is followed by some clear weather to allow workers to get equipment into the orchards to harvest the fruit.
"We hope there is enough of a break so that we can start picking and not allow the fruit to get oversized, which has happened before. We would like it to be dry enough for the machinery to get in and out of the orchard," Vega said.
In his growing district in the Central Valley, Lange is currently harvesting lemons as well as mandarins and navel oranges and will continue to pick through March. He says the lemons, although small, are of good quality.
"We have really good fruit quality this year. It is good and juicy, which is what people want in a lemon that has kind of a sweet-tart flavor," Lange said. "Harvest is going slowly, but it is probably good for the market because then it is just pacing out the supply side."
To protect the fruit, Lange and other Central Valley growers are operating wind machines during the nights when temperatures drop below 27 degrees Fahrenheit. Lange operates and maintains 85 wind machines.
"Lemon trees are some of the most sensitive to frost so even though we've seen the citrus belt expand, it has not been able to expand to accommodate lemons because they have to go back into those warm—what they call banana belt—areas because they are so frost sensitive," Lange said.
Freezing weather that lemon growers in other parts of the country experienced in early 2007 have also helped keep supplies low, creating a better price for California growers.
"There have been regions that have been tremendously hurt. During the January freeze of 2007, Yuma had the coldest temperatures ever recorded so they had major damage to their lemons," Lange said.
In the California desert lemon growing district, Linden Anderson, ranch manager for HMS Agricultural Corp., takes care of upwards of 800 acres of lemons in the Coachella and Imperial valleys. He reports that damage to lemons due to the January 2007 freeze was hit or miss for growers in his area.
"We had significant damage that really affected the bloom on the lemons, more so than the other citrus. Some places had almost no crop and other places had a decent crop so it really varied from location to location. In general, we were probably around 30 percent of a normal crop this year," Anderson said. "Prices have been very strong, so if you had a fair to good crop, you did really well. But if you were one of the ones that came up with a blank, then you had trouble."
Desert growers began harvest in September, about a month later than usual, and wrapped up in early January. Assuming growers survive this winter with minor weather problems, Anderson expects next season's lemon crop will be a plentiful one.
"If the weather cooperates, we anticipate a very good set on next year's crop because frankly, a lot of the trees are very vigorous and very healthy," Anderson said.
California is able to supply lemons to the market virtually year-round because of the different growing districts.
The USDA's California Agricultural Statistics Service recently reported that for the 2007-2008 season, California lemon growers produced an estimated 646,000 tons (34 million cartons) of fruit, 6 percent above last season's final production and up 3 percent from the October 2007 forecast. Volumes nonetheless are expected to remain below average due to last year's freeze.
(Christine Souza is a reporter for 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.