Navel oranges: Growers deal with pest issues as harvest starts

By Cecilia Parsons 

The only apparent fly in the ointment for the start of the 2013-14 navel orange harvest in the San Joaquin Valley is the notorious Asian citrus psyllid. The invasive pest, found recently in some of the state’s most productive citrus-growing areas, has triggered enforcement of quarantine zones to control its spread.

Aside from the psyllid, growers, packers and citrus organization representatives agreed the navel orange growing season has been favorable and prospects for quality harvest are in sight.

Bonanza navel oranges are being harvested in the Arvin-Edison area of Kern County. This early variety had significant color break this year and the fruit was passing maturity tests. Most of the state’s early navel oranges are harvested in the Arvin-Edison area.  Photo/Cecilia Parsons

Bonanza navel oranges are being harvested in the Arvin-Edison area of Kern County. This early variety had significant color break this year and the fruit was passing maturity tests. Most of the state’s early navel oranges are harvested in the Arvin-Edison area.
Photo/Cecilia Parsons

Where psyllid quarantine zones are in place, restrictions on movement of fruit from fields to packinghouses will require coordination between growers and packers, according to county agricultural commissioners.

Navel orange harvest began around Oct. 10 in the Arvin-Edison area of Kern County, as early varieties had significant color break. Even with tighter maturity standards for navel oranges, most of the early harvested fruit was meeting color and taste standards, Kern County Agricultural Commissioner Ruben Arroyo said.

“In talking with our field men, color has been good and we’ve only had minor issues with initial sugar tests,” he said.

Porterville-area citrus grower and manager Gary Laux said fruit quality is good now, but the valley needs some “cold storage”-type temperatures to keep the fruit in good condition throughout the season.

“We’re very optimistic,” said California Citrus Mutual’s Bob Blakely about the start of navel harvest. “Since picking began two weeks ago, we have had some very high tests. ”

Growers, packers and citrus groups all noted the slightly smaller size of the crop compared to last year. The California Navel Orange Objective Report estimated a 2 percent drop in production, to 88 million cartons, with 85 million cartons forecast to come from the Central Valley. Survey data found a fruit set per tree of 265, below the five-year average of 315. Fruit diameter of 2.338 was above the five-year average of 2.224 and the largest since the 2004-05 season.

Tulare County Agricultural Commissioner Marilyn Kinoshita said two psyllid quarantine zones covering a large portion of citrus production in the county will require growers and packinghouses to plan in advance. The zones were established after multiple psyllids were trapped in those areas.

Citrus grown inside a quarantine zone that will be packed outside the zone must be treated no more than seven days prior to harvest. Bins of fruit must also be tarped enroute to the packinghouse, to prevent the leaf-dwelling psyllid from infesting new areas along the way.

“This just adds another layer of expense for growers,” Laux said of the treatment requirement.

Groves typically are not harvested all at once, he explained, meaning the farmer will have to bring spray rigs out multiple times to cover the rows chosen for harvest.

Prices for early citrus are difficult to gauge, Sun Pacific General Manager Al Bates said. Markets still hold the tail-end fruit from Chile, which is priced lower than incoming domestic fruit. Growers won’t get a real feel for the market conditions until November, Bates said.

Prices depend on the time of the season, Laux said. Early prices can be high, but by the middle of the season—when the bulk of the fruit is harvested—prices drop. They begin to pick up later in March, he said, so growers who are able to hold fruit, depending on quality and variety, will benefit from the higher prices.

“Right now, there is a lot of fruit in the channel—more fruit than what the market will take—so if it continues, prices will erode,” Laux said.

Right on the heels of the initial navel harvest, seedless mandarins hit the market. Sun Pacific is one of the largest growers of Clementine and Murcott varieties, and production has increased exponentially in recent years as more groves mature. Bates and other citrus growers and shippers have voiced their belief that the market has room for both navel oranges and seedless mandarins, but flavor may sway consumers toward the easy peeling mandarins.

“Navels will hit their stride later and compete, but for early fruit, the seedless taste better starting out,” Bates said, while adding that the new maturity standards for navels will help.

Maturity standards for navel oranges have moved past a simple sugar/acid ratio. Adopted by citrus growers and packers, the new formula called the California Standard is based on brix minus acid, and is believed to be a better indicator of flavor and customer acceptance. Requiring growers to meet the standard will help keep less flavorful fruit from reaching the market.

Blakely said navel orange bloom was even this year and fruit maturity should be more uniform than last year.

Growers are keeping up with pest and disease issues that can hamper export sales, Blakely said. Fruit destined for the Korean market must be sampled for Septoria spot, which is caused by a pathogen. Management includes regular copper applications to control. Fuller rose beetle can also keep citrus out of export markets, and Blakely said growers must continue to skirt their trees and apply pesticide to keep the pest from infesting fruit.

The harvest labor situation remains unknown. Bates, Arroyo and Blakely all confirmed that labor has been tight throughout the Valencia orange harvest, and said they don’t expect the issue to be resolved soon.

“We’re competing with other crops and as demand grows, the cost of labor will rise,” Bates said.

Labor could be the limiting factor in the early navel harvest, Blakely said, as growers of grapes, olives and other crops compete for a smaller pool of workers. Growers and packinghouses that seek full harvest crews may have to settle for fewer workers, he said.

Credit to the California Farm Bureau Federation for this article.

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