California Citrus is Prime for More Space

Sunkist Citrus DisplayPhoto Courtesy of Sunkist

With increasing supply of the prized category, growers have a simple message for produce retailers.

Sunkist Mandarins

Photo Courtesy of Sunkist

California citrus growers have steadily shifted production toward sweeter, smaller, easier peeling varieties that continue to capture the eyes and taste buds of consumers nationwide. These growers have one main request for retailers.

“We need more shelf space,” says Dave Roth, president of Cecelia Packing, Orange Cove, CA. “You go into a store and see 16 varieties of apples, and all we’re getting is a couple 2-foot bins. We need more space; more visibility would pay off.”

Cecelia Packing ships a total of about a million cases of citrus a year, including the harvest from its own 2,200 acres in Tulare and Fresno County in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley.

“Build compelling waterfall displays front-and-center that shout ‘Buy me,’” instructs Bob DiPiazza, president of Sun Pacific Marketing, Pasadena, CA. “Four to 12-foot wide displays can all be effective, use available POS to call out the product and draw in the consumer. Display contests capture the creativity and the competitive spirit of your produce managers. A price that offers your customers good value is always a plus.”

The Easy Peeler‭ Revolution Continues

Much like the Navel orange drove the category a generation ago, today, Mandarins and other easy-peeler varieties occupy top status in the citrus category. “Mandarins remain very popular among consumers for their convenience,” says Joan Wickham, director of communications at Sunkist Growers, Valencia, CA. “They are a healthy, delicious snack that families can feel good about and are also a tasty addition to recipes.”

California growers are continuing to replace their older Navel orange trees with new blocks of the popular Mandarin and tangerine easy peelers, with a special emphasis on varieties that extend the season. “A lot of people are planting Murcotts and Tangos (the Mandarin varieties),” says Roth. “Valencias have dropped, and there is Navel acreage that has been pulled out, because there was poor return on old trees with small fruit.”

Statewide, growers are devoting increased acreage to Mandarins, which should mean supply will be robust for years to come.

“Mandarins are where the real activity has taken place,” says Alyssa Houtby, director of public affairs for California Citrus Mutual, Exeter, CA. “The California Citrus Acreage Report from the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) shows a 20,115-acre increase since 2010, which is a 52 percent hike.”

As a result of this planting boom, there are now nearly 60,000 acres of Mandarins in the state, according to Houtby. Much of this new acreage is in easy-peeler varieties that extend the period of time they are available domestically.

“Varietal development extended the season for easy peelers, with high-quality, late-season varieties now available through late spring (such as Gold Nugget variety Mandarins and Ojai Pixie tangerines),” says Wickham. “Late season Navel varieties, like the Barnsfield, also helped extend the season of that very quintessential variety.”

As Mandarins have become the citrus variety of choice, California has come to supply the lion’s share of that growing market. “California has been capturing market share since the inception of the crop approximately 14 years ago and holds about a 89 percent share of the U.S. market,” says DiPiazza. “California grabbed predominant market share from Spain and Morocco, and the volume they import today is dramatically less than 15 years ago. The summer imports coming from the Southern Hemisphere during our off-season. While these summer imports are growing, they currently amount to approximately 15 percent of the easy peelers produced in California and imported from Spain and Morocco from November thru April.”

There are standard packages for this most popular citrus, as they are rarely sold loose. “Mandarins are sold in mesh 2-, 3- and 5-pound bags, and 5-pound boxes,” says DiPiazza. “Three-pound bags and 5-pound bags and boxes are the most predominant. There is little to no bulk.”

Don’t Forget The Co-Stars

Mandarins are the undisputed stars of the category, but there is also a growing list of intriguing co-stars ready to play important roles in Meyer Lemonsthe citrus department. “We see real and growing interest in premium products like our Vintage Sweets Heirloom Navel Oranges,” says DiPiazza. “Cara Cara oranges, Clementine, Tango and other specialty variety Mandarins continue to grow in popularity.”

Another development is a series of new Navel varieties intended to extend the season. “Late Navel varieties like Barnfields, Powells and Autumn Golds are increasing for the export market,” says Roth.

Both Navel oranges and Mandarins will be available out of California over a longer season, because of this new variety development. “Late season Washington, Barnfield and Powell variety Navel oranges have extended the California Navel orange crop into July,” says DiPiazza. “Murcott, Tango and other specialty Mandarin varieties extended the California season into May.”

One particularly popular specialty fruit is a sweeter version of Navel oranges with a distinctive reddish hue.

“Cara Cara Navel oranges have the same round shape and bright orange rind as traditional Navels,” says John Chamberlain, director of marketing at Limoneira, Santa Paula, CA. “What really sets these oranges apart is their distinct pinkish-red and orange flesh. Compared to traditional Navels, Cara Caras are sweeter, slightly tangy, and less acidic, with a hint of red fruit (like cranberry or blackberry). Cara Cara’s pair exceptionally well with shellfish.”

The recipe blog on the Limoneira website includes grilled shrimp salad with heirloom tomatoes and Cara Cara orange vinaigrette, as well as a Cara Cara orange and beet salad that pairs well with a Grenache Blanc white wine.

Limoneira is one of the state’s largest lemon shipper, and is emphasizing one new and one classical variety.

“Our pink lemons have been very popular,” says Chamberlain. “Their striped to blush exterior and pink interior make them an attractive option with consumers who are looking for unique garnishes. Blue Apron, one of our customers, creates some delicious recipes with them including Za’atar Chicken and Pearl Couscous with asparagus and pink lemon, and asparagus and arugula pesto pizza.”

A more familiar lemon is sweeter, because it is actually a cross between a lemon and an orange. “Meyer lemons are also great,” says Chamberlain. “They are sweeter than regular lemons with a complex fragrance that is reminiscent of Mandarin orange. Meyer lemons pair best with herbs and spices that have a similarly bright profile, but earthy flavors balance the citrus notes, too. Delectable pairings include cardamom, cilantro, dill, lavender, dark chocolate and ginger.”

While grapefruit and Navel acreage declined, according to Houtby, lemon acreage is up slightly in recent years and regained 2010 levels. Meyer lemons are already available 12 months of the year, and Limoneira’s pink lemon is shipped from February to August.

Although Navel oranges are now the No. 2 citrus fruit, they remain an essential part of the citrus display.

“Navel oranges are also of course a classic favorite among consumers,” says Wickham. “Seedless, sweet and bursting with juice, Navel oranges are named for the small, Navel-like formation on their blossom end.”

Across the board, there is also particularly increasing demand for organic citrus of all types and varieties. “Organics are the fastest growing segment in agriculture,” says Wickham. “To meet this demand, Sunkist’s organic portfolio expanded with more organic acreage coming into production. Sunkist is pleased to be offering our customers a broad portfolio of organics including Navel, Cara Cara Navel and Valencia oranges, Mandarins, Minneolas, grapefruit, lemons and limes.”

Sales Are Up

Citrus as a whole is increasing, as all the leading varieties are still showing robust growth.

“The citrus category is performing very well with two of the top three sub-categories seeing double digit growth,” says DiPiazza of Sun Pacific. “For the second year running, Mandarins are the top sales producer and surpassed oranges. For those retailers that report their sales, Mandarins are 40 percent of total citrus category sales and are up 14 percent from prior year. Oranges represent 28 percent of category sales and are flat with the previous year. Lemons are 17 percent of category sales and are up 11 percent to the previous year.”

Citrus is displayed in both bulk and bagged, and both the ratio and the sort of bag used depend on the variety.

“For oranges, 45 percent is loose, 55 percent is bagged; for lemons, 64 percent is loose, 36 percent is bagged,” says DiPiazza. “Navels are sold in 4-, 5-, 8- and 10-pound mesh or poly/mesh bags, and one-third cartons. Navels are also sold in bulk. Generally, limes and grapefruit are sold both bulk and bagged.”

Some convenience consumer bags of citrus are growing more popular in some areas. “Retailers have various preferences when it comes to packaging but bags, and pouch bags in particular, are becoming more popular, because they offer real estate to catch the eye of consumers and also educate about flavor profiles, nutritional information and usage ideas,” says Wickham. “Bulk or package sales of citrus vary by retailer based on unique customer base and store format.”

Some major shippers go the extra mile to help retailers build and maintain displays that move citrus. “We have a number of tips from experts on merchandising on the Produce Buyers/Merchandisers section of the Limoneira blog to help sell more produce,” says Chamberlain. “Giving an appearance of abundance, color combinations, natural displays and rotating/interesting signage, as well as an attention-getting visual or two are just a few of the 16 tips mentioned. We have lemon and citrus lifestyle tips for different consumer uses — recipes and health are obvious. Less obvious, but still important, are beauty, green cleaning and décor.”

As newer varieties come to the forefront, it helps to relay information about them and how they are best used.

“Educating consumers, particularly about newer citrus varieties like Meyer lemons and Cara Cara oranges, is very important to driving purchase,” says Wickham.

“We recommend retailers leverage displays and signage to promote seasonality, flavor profiles, nutrition benefits and usage ideas,” says Wickham. “We also recommend retailers merchandise citrus together — instead of using it as a color break — to help promote and build the category.”

Water Matters

With California hosting such a dominant source of fresh market citrus, fruit availability nationwide depends greatly on rainfall and water policy in the Golden State.

Most shippers report that the relatively normal rainfall last winter made for a good citrus crop. “We had a great season, aided by some rainfall from the El Nino,” says Joan Wickham, director of communications at Sunkist Growers, Valencia, CA. “As for next year’s season, it is early to make any predictions, but we are optimistic for another strong season.”

There are cases, however, especially in Southern California, where even under El Nino conditions, water shortages impacted fruit size.

“The water shortage has had an effect on fruit sizing, strength and volumes,” says John Chamberlain, director of marketing at Limoneira, Santa Paula, CA.

There are longer-term water issues that could seriously impact the cost of fresh citrus. “Water district charges increased three to four times for water usage, and in many cases, wells had to be deepened,” says Bob DiPiazza, president of Sun Pacific Marketing, Pasadena, CA. “While production costs per acre were impacted by water, fortunately the bulk of the citrus crop received enough water, and Navels and Mandarins were both in good supply last season. We don’t expect that to change for the upcoming season, but we do predict about a 10 to 15 percent reduction in Clementines and Navel oranges, and an increase in the Murcott and Tango easy peelers beginning later in mid-January.”

In the short-term, growers compensate for a lack of rainfall or state and federal project water by pumping from underground sources.

But over the long run that strategy could cause trouble as a recently enacted state law will lead to restrictions on groundwater pumping. This year looks to have brought some respite from the recent trend of over pumping groundwater to make up for shortages in surface water — a pattern that is not sustainable in the long run, because surface sources were generally adequate.

“We had almost a normal run for surface water this year, so we didn’t turn the pumps on much,” says Dave Roth, president of Cecelia Packing, Orange Cove, CA. “We’re hoping it will help the underground water. We could use three or four years as a minimum of this, but ideally we’d like to double it.”