CALIFORNIA CITRUS

Originally printed in the October 2018 issue of Produce Business.

Traditional varieties, such as Navel oranges, still lead the pack.

Citrus is synonymous with California. It’s no wonder. Next year marks 250 years since Spanish missionaries are believed to have first planted these sweet-tart, Southeast Asian natives in the Golden State. Today, California ranks first with 59 percent of the U.S. citrus production, and first in fresh-market fruit at 87 percent of the state’s crop, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service’s August-published Citrus Fruits 2018. In addition to volume, it’s variety that differentiates California from other citrus-growing states. Retailers can take advantage of this during the state’s October through June window of availability by selling everything from commodity oranges, Mandarins and lemons to specialties such as Blood oranges, Mandarinquats and pink lemons.

“Due to variety, quality, sugar content and its well-known reputation, California is hands down the primary, and most-important, growing region for citrus to our stores and shoppers,” says Max Maddaus, produce director at Kowalski’s Markets, an 11-store chain based in Woodbury, MN.

WHAT’S IN, UP & COMING, NEW

The best-selling California citrus varieties continue to be the traditional ones all consumers think of when they crave citrus, says Julie DeWolf, director of retail marketing for Sunkist Growers, in Valencia, CA. “This includes Navel oranges, lemons and Clementines and California (W. Murcott) Mandarins.”

Navels represent nearly half (45.2 percent) of bearing acres, according to the 2018 California Citrus Acreage Report, released Aug. 3. Mandarins and Mandarin hybrids are next at 22.8 percent, followed by lemons (16.7 percent), Valencia oranges (11.3 percent), grapefruit (3.2 percent), and both Pummelos and hybrids and limes at less than 1 percent of each the state’s citrus acreage.

Going forward, Adam Cooper, vice president of marketing for major citrus grower-marketer, The Wonderful Company, headquartered in Los Angeles, says, “We are focused on two strategies. One, offering something new and different and two, extending the seasons for our growth varieties. For example, we are seeing increased plantings for specialty items such as Cara Caras, Gold Nuggets, Meyer lemons and Blood oranges and we are exploring new varieties to extend Caras, Navels and Mandarins to help meet consumer demand and fill voids in supply.”

These two tactics echo throughout the state’s citrus industry and are already evident in what California growers will bring to market this season.

ORANGES. “The kingpin of volume remains the Navel orange,” confirms Alex Teague, chief operating officer for the Limoneira Company, based in Santa Paula, CA. “It may not have the glamour, but it still is the largest mover in citrus.”

Heirloom Navels, and Clementines, are the most popular types of citrus at Kowalski’s Markets, according to Maddaus. “We are always willing to try new and upcoming varieties because our shoppers look to us to provide them with the next-best item.”

Heirloom Navels are a featured program starting in January from Classic Harvest, a grower-direct citrus supplier headquartered in Paramus, NJ.

“We have strict requirements, such as sourcing from old-line Washington Navel orange trees that are more than 45 years old and bear fruit that has the brix-acid ratio people remember from when they were a kid,” says Linda Cunningham, president. “We sell these in a 3-pound bag, rather than the 4-pound typical of regular Navels, with the story of the fruit on the back of the bag. We also have a special display-ready carton. The fruit has its own PLU, so it can be merchandised in bulk and retailers can be assured of the correct ring at checkout.”

Cara Caras, a specialty Navel known for its pink interior and superior sweetness while also being lower in acidity than conventional Navels, are among the fastest-growing, up-and-coming citrus varieties, according to Sunkist’s DeWolf. “Cara Caras are becoming more mainstream every year.”

Blood oranges, recognized by their deep red-colored flesh, are available out of California from January through April.

“One of the newest are late-Blood orange varieties designed to extend the season,” says Limoneira’s Teague.

Blood oranges were the focus of a successful promotion last winter at Tops Friendly Markets, a 169-store chain based in Williamsville, NY.

“The name Blood orange can sound unappetizing to some customers. So, we promoted them as Raspberry oranges and promoted them on social media as well as in-store and really had success,” says Jeff Cady, produce director. “We got the idea from our supply partner, Kings Packing in Sanger, which noted that blood oranges have a raspberry-citrus flavor.”

MANDARINS. Mandarins and hybrids such as Tangerines, have taken the California citrus industry by storm over the past two decades.

“Easy-peel Mandarins are a high-consumption fruit that have been taking some of the share away from Navels,” says Cady.

These varieties, traditionally available from November to May, are poised for continued growth in availability.

“The exciting news is nursery sales indicate Mandarins continue to be the No. 1 citrus variety planted in California,” says Wonderful’s Cooper. “California Mandarins are available in large supply during key consumption timeframes, including Thanksgiving and Christmas, and overall acreage coming into production continues to be meaningfully larger for our company and the entire industry. All signs point to the next crop year experiencing significant growth for our Halos and the industry due to this new acreage coming into production.”

Up-and-coming specialty Mandarin varieties include Satsuma Tangerines (November to February), Kishu Mandarins (December to February), Shasta Gold Tangerines (February to April), Ojai Pixie Tangerines (March to May/June) and Gold Nugget Tangerines (March to May), says Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Melissa’s/World Variety Produce, Los Angeles.

“The Gold Nugget may be the sweetest Mandarin on the market, is fast becoming a consumer favorite and sometimes lasts into early June,” says Sunkist’s DeWolf. “There has been more than double the growth on this variety in the past five years, with about 1,600 acres in the ground currently.”

LEMONS. There has been increased demand over the past few years for lemons, says Jason Sadoain, sales representative for Bee Sweet Citrus, in Fowler, CA. “Lemons are extremely versatile and can be used to fit the needs of families and foodies alike.”

Joel Nelson, president of California Citrus Mutual (CCM), an Exeter, CA-based trade organization advocating on behalf of state growers, agrees with this observation and adds a historical perspective. “Lemons in California were once like oranges in Florida. That is, the majority, or more than 60 percent, went into processing. We saw a shift to greater interest in fresh market lemons about eight years ago for items like fresh lemonade and use by chefs and home cooks in a greater number of culinary applications. Now, about 60 percent of California’s lemons go to fresh-market sales, and the state overall supplies nearly all the nation’s lemons.”

“Currently, all U.S. production comes from the coastal region of California, with more than 15 percent growth per year,” says Wonderful’s Cooper. “Lemon quality should be excellent as fruit moves in and out of the packing house quickly, and the California Desert and Central Valley kick off their season this month driving supply back up in the market.”

Specialty lemons finding a sweet spot with consumers include Meyer lemons, available out of California October to March, and Pink lemons, which ship September to February.

“Meyer lemons are a wonderful alternative to conventional lemons with their subtly sweet mellow flavor, herbal scent and extreme juiciness,” says Sunkist’s DeWolf.

GRAPEFRUIT. “Grapefruit is something we’re seeing more opportunity in, both pink and red flesh,” says the CCM’s Nelson.

Beyond this, specialty grapefruit grown in the state include the Cocktail grapefruit, available November to February, and Melo-Gold, Oro Blanco and Pummelo, which harvest November to March.

“Pummelos are the most-amazing, mellow-flavored and sweet grapefruit you can find, so don’t let their large size intimidate you, as they are delicious,” says Sunkist’s DeWolf.

SPECIALTIES. The long-fingered Buddha’s hand is one of the specialty citrus varieties sold at Tops Friendly Markets, says Cady. “We’ll bring it in during the holidays. It’s popular as an ornamental centerpiece.”

California Minneolas and Tangelos, crosses between a Tangerine and grapefruit, ship from December to April.

“We’re seeing more interest in citrus specialties by retailers that want to offer that ‘something different’ for their customers,” says Alex Jackson Berkley, assistant sales manager at Frieda’s Specialty Produce, in Los Alamitos, CA. “This includes Kumquats, Limequat, Mandarinquat, finger limes and Calamondin.” (The Calamondin is a natural hybrid of a sour Mandarin and Kumquat).

TACKLING CHALLENGES

California’s citrus industry is sizable, comprising 270,000 acres. It is pegged at more than $7 billion, according to a May 2018-report by the Visalia, CA-based Citrus Research Board. However, weather, availability of water, wildfires, labor and pest issues are all challenges for the growers.

“Citrus growing regions in California experienced extreme heat this summer, which we continually monitor to understand how the winter crops will react,” says Cooper. “But overall, the next crop year for citrus should remain strong for our company and the industry.”

To offset the state’s demand for water on all fronts, including fighting wildfires, retailers should expect price increases that are subject to supply and demand, according to Bee Sweet’s Sadoain. “Unfortunately, wildfires have become California’s new norm, and the industry, as a whole, finds us working to accommodate those additional water needs.”

This past December, wildfires raged in Ventura County blown by high winds that scarred lemons. “We worked with one of our retailers who temporarily adjusted specs on scarring to be able to take the fruit,” says Cunningham of Classic Harvest.

Labor is one of the biggest challenges California growers face, adds Cunningham. “The labor force has contracted due to immigration issues, and the minimum-wage increase has additional costs. Many growers are mechanizing their packing houses.”

Lastly, there’s citrus greening. Scientifically called Huanglongbing, this bacterial disease has devastated Florida’s citrus crop, and made its way to Southern California.

“We knew the bug was in Mexico, so nine years ago, we implemented a 9-cents-a-carton assessment to pay for removal of affected trees,” says CCM’s Nelson. “Most recently, we’ve removed trees in Orange County and have received interest from those in Riverside and Ventura County.”

COUNTERSEASON COOPERATION

California isn’t the only kid on the block when it comes to supplying citrus. Florida, Arizona and Texas are major producers, and each is in the market at the same time as California. In the summer, offshore fruit from countries such as Chile, Peru, South Africa, Mexico and Australia also fulfills demand.

“California can’t offer the volume and variety it does outside its normal season, so imports are necessary,” says Melissa’s Schueller. “This is especially true for specialties. Except for a short window in August and September when Cara Cara Navels and Blood oranges come in from offshore, it’s mostly the commodity citrus, regular Navels and Mandarins that are the bulk of the imports. Therefore, for now anyway, imported citrus isn’t so much a competitor for California but a complementary part of being able to provide retailers year-round availability.”


SELL MORE CALIFORNIA CITRUS

One of the best ways to sell more California citrus is with in-store destination displays, recommends Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Melissa’s/World Variety Produce in Los Angeles. “Build the display by creating categories in each variety of citrus. For example, merchandise all orange varieties – Navels, Cara Caras, Bloods — together. The same with Mandarins, grapefruit, lemons, limes and specialty citrus. The fruit is fine at room temperature. There is no need to use refrigerated space.”

Some 70 to 80 percent of California’s citrus is sold in bulk. However, “in terms of marketing, bright, eye-popping packaging definitely captures the consumer’s attention,” says Jason Sadoain, sales representative for Bee Sweet Citrus, in Fowler, CA.

Bagged product has increased over the past five years, says Sunkist’s DeWolf. “Consumers buy with their eyes, and for this reason, items like Giro and pouch bags have really grown in popularity. Additionally, we are seeing trends toward lower weight bags (from 4-pounds to 3-pounds) as retailers try to maximize their own sales and margins and match them to consumer desires for high quality at lower prices.”

Merchandising is key for citrus at Kowalski’s Markets, an 11-store chain based in Woodbury, MN.

“We pick the right item at peak time and pair it with effective merchandising, coupled with demos to expose our shoppers to the quality of product we offer,” says Max Maddaus, produce director.

Cross-merchandising can be particularly effective for citrus.

“Retailers short on space, and even for those who aren’t, should consider secondary display units to highlight specific varieties, especially some of the lesser-known varieties. For example, lemons benefit from placement next to seafood and liquor. Also, during cold and flu season, place citrus in the pharmacy in a display bin with signage touting its vitamin C content and health benefits. This is especially good for Cara Cara navels, which have a higher vitamin C content than conventional navels and naturally contain lycopene, a powerful antioxidant.”

Price drives citrus sales, say grower-marketers, who suggest promoting a variety of citrus each week during California’s peak winter months. Themes such as a Citrus Celebration or Squeeze the Day, with and without price promotion, are also ways to keep register’s ringing.

Last February, Mandarins featured prominently in Tops Friendly Markets’ Produce Olympics, a display contest for the retailer’s associates with a different theme for each of the four weeks. The themes included Curling with potatoes, a Berry Biathlon, Chilean Cross Country and The Halo Bobsled event.

“It was a very successful promotion,” says Jeff Cady, produce director.

This season, The Wonderful Company will drive consumer demand of its Halos brand Mandarins with a $28 million consumer marketing campaign, says Adam Cooper, vice president of marketing for major citrus grower-marketer, The Wonderful Company, headquartered in Los Angeles. “This robust 360-marketing campaign will debut produce’s biggest in-store display program ever, six television commercials, digital, social media, influencer marketing, FSIs, a Times Square billboard, and many other exciting promotions.”

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