2023 California citrus season update.
Originally printed in the October 2023 issue of Produce Business.
California’s citrus “gold rush” started in the mid-18th century when Spanish padres first introduced the fruit. According to the 2016-released report, Citrus Production in California, published by the University of California, Davis, they planted bright orange, thin-skinned, Spanish-style sweet oranges and golden yellow, thick-skinned, citron-type lemons. Cultivation grew from San Diego to San Jose.
Today, the Golden State is a citrus powerhouse, supplying some 80% of the nation’s fresh citrus and exporting to 16-plus countries around the globe, according to data from the California Citrus Mutual, in Exeter, CA. Three-fourths of California’s acreage and most of its orange, mandarin and lemon production are in the San Joaquin Valley, with lemons grown in the coastal regions and grapefruit and lemons in the desert.
While there is year-round citrus production in California, the peak season is from November to April, when there’s the most volume and variety for retail shelves.
“California citrus is a key category for our produce departments in winter, not only driving sales, but also adding excitement to the department,” says Chris Harris, category director for produce and floral at New Seasons Market, a 20-store chain headquartered in Portland, OR. “California citrus has excellent flavor and vibrant colors, which make it easy to merchandise and keep customers coming back for more.”
“Many of our preliminary estimates show about the same size crop for mandarins, navel oranges and lemons. Those are our top three sellers,” says Jason Sadoian, citrus sales representative at Bee Sweet Citrus, in Fowler, CA.
In general, most of California’s citrus is conventionally grown.
“Organic is growing, with more acreage in production and a bigger volume coming on. There’s still about a 20% gap in price, with organic more expensive than conventional, and the higher prices can be a challenge for retailers,” says Joel Gonzalez, in national sales at Mountain View Fruit, in Reedley, CA.
California’s organic citrus acreage was 21,115 acres according to the 2021-2022 California Agriculture Organics Report, by the California Department of Food & Agriculture (CDFA). In comparison, the state’s citrus acreage in 2022 was 268,937 acres, based on the CDFA’s 2022 California Citrus Acreage Report.
Overall, “depending on the variety, most citrus sales are on bulk products versus bags. It’s about a 60/40 ratio,” says Sadoian.
Branded citrus resonates well with consumers, says Zak Laffite, president of Wonderful Citrus, in Delano, CA, which markets its mandarins under the Halos brand. “With inflation, we are getting more requests from retailers to pack in 2-pound, rather than 3-pound, bags to hit a better price point.”
“Navel oranges continue to be the dominant commodity in terms of volume, but we have seen increased interest in Cara Cara oranges recently,” says New Seasons Market’s Harris.
The CDFA released its 2023-2024 Navel Orange Objective Measurement Report, Sept. 12, 2023. The good news is that initial results show the state’s navel crop is up 1% over last season, to 74 million cartons. This forecast includes both conventional and organic, as well as specialty navels such as Cara Cara and blood orange varieties.
“Cara Caras are our most popular specialty citrus variety, along with Minneola Tangelos and Royal Red Oranges,” says Bee Sweet’s Sadoian.
“Thrip will play a bigger role this season compared to previous years,” he adds, “creating more choice grade opportunities and less fancy volume for navel oranges and Cara Cara navels.”
Citrus thrips are small, winged insects that feed on young citrus fruit and create scar damage.
“The high temperature we experienced early this year will most likely affect the size of the fruit. We could see smaller navels and mandarins right out of the gate,” adds Sadoian.
California navel oranges have become a big part of wintertime citrus sales at Robért Fresh Market, a six-store chain based in New Orleans, LA. This is especially true since the retailer’s local navel crop has been decimated by disease and hurricane saltwater intrusion.
“We bring in bins of 36-count jumbo navels, which usually have a better cost so we can get the retail down to 69 to 79 cents each,” says Terry Esteve, produce director. “Just drop the bin on the floor and they sell themselves. Customers generally will look for natural vitamin C that time of the year.”
Bagged mandarins are a staple item during the California season, says New Seasons Market’s Harris.
The CDFA released its 2023-2024 Mandarin Orange Objective Measurement Report, Sept. 12, the first of its kind with similar depth and detail to the navel report, although it covers only Tango and W. Murcott Afourer varieties. Estimates show the crop is about 21 million 40-pound cartons in size, an increase of 8% from last year.
“The biggest crop for us is mandarins. This year, we expect harvest to run 10 days to two weeks later, starting in early to mid-November. However, imports from Chile ended early, so we are expecting good demand and pricing when we start,” says Gonzalez of Mountain View Fruit.
The California season finished with a 4.2 million box production of grapefruit, according to the July 12, 2023-published citrus forecast by the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) for the 2022-2023 season.
“Red grapefruit is preferred and in good demand. We produce quality grapefruit in California,” says Gonzalez.
Some 20 million boxes of lemons were grown in California during the 2022-2023 season, based on the USDA NASS report.
The upcoming will mark the fifth season for Wonderful Seedless Lemons, a naturally seedless non-GMO Project Verified citrus, grown in California by Wonderful Citrus. Volumes run from October to May, however, the company is planting in Mexico as well for year-round supply.
“We think once consumers try our seedless lemons, they won’t go back to the seeded variety,” says Laffite. “We’ve invested in a robust PR program and social media campaign and have POS for retailers to promote this product. We expect our volume to grow in the next three to five years.”
There isn’t a large commercial production of limes in California. However, the state’s proximity to Mexico makes this fruit readily available. EV Produce International, headquartered in McAllen, TX, has a facility in Tijuana, Mexico, where limes are repacked before being imported to either the company’s warehouse facility in Los Angeles or transported directly to a retailer’s distribution center.
“Persian limes are the gold standard because they are seedless,” says Erick Carranza, sales manager. “Retailers are often more interested in quality and where the limes are grown than in volume and pricing. We have production zones to provide a 52-week supply, but the highest quality is harvested in Veracruz. Because of the distance from Veracruz, that’s why we have our repack facility near the U.S. border. We pack in 40-pound boxes, 10-pound boxes for small retailers, and also 5-pound bags.”
At New Seasons Market, Harris says they have done well with specialty citrus, including odd mandarins, kumquats, blood oranges, sweet limes and variegated lemons among others. The stores feature individual items for a short time, and then moving on to a different selection, he adds. “Customers tend to buy these items once or twice, but don’t come back for much repeat business.”
Craft cocktails are driving demand for specialty citrus, says Robért Market’s Esteve. “Some of the varieties we’ll bring in during the winter months are blood oranges and Meyer lemons — it’s New Orleans and a quick Google search will yield plenty of adult beverage recipes that are made with both.”
“We’ll often tie in both — Meyer lemons and blood oranges, with the clementine displays for additional sales,” he adds. “Kids get the clementines and the other two for the adults.”
Sunkist Growers offers 40-plus unique varietal offerings of citrus, says Cassie Howard, senior director of category management and marketing for the Valencia, CA-headquartered agricultural cooperative.
“During the season, our retail partners and consumers can expect to see pummelos, as well as the return of specialty citrus favorites, including Caras, blood oranges and Minneola tangelos,” says Howard.
“Consumers are continuing to seek new and exotic flavors, and experiences to match, and our specialty citrus varieties offer unique flavor profiles, nutritious offerings, and niche product attributes to spruce up traditional recipes.”
To help retailers make the most of varietal citrus during the California season, Melissa’s/World Variety Produce provides its California Dreamin’ Variety Citrus Calendar that shows peak availability.
“Kumquats, Pixie tangerines, Meyer lemons, Satsuma tangerines with stem and leaf, and Neapolitan tangerines are our biggest sellers in specialty citrus,” says Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Vernon, CA-headquartered company. “We see good growth in the following California citrus varieties for the upcoming season: Buddha’s Hand, Finger Limes, Pink Lemons, and conventional and organic lemon and lime combo packs.”
MERCHANDISING & PROMOTIONAL PROGRAMS
“We love to promote California citrus in promotional displays using colorful grower boxes. This merchandising allows customers to quickly identify what is the best of the best at any one time,” says New Seasons Market’s Harris.
With citrus being a gift-giving tradition and an essential staple during holiday festivities, says Sunkist Growers’ Howard, “retailers can capitalize on our 10-pound navel holiday cartons during Thanksgiving and Christmas and carry that momentum through Lunar New Year with our limited-edition ‘Year of the Dragon’ cartons and matching quarter bins.”
Last season, Wonderful Citrus introduced a secondary display bin for its seedless lemons. It features a small footprint, and angled sides that make it easy to fit into corner spaces in the produce department. Information on the display lets customers know how to use the citrus in recipes and cocktails.
In 2020, Melissa’s/World Variety Produce kicked off its “Citrus as Medicine” program.
“As self-care emerges as a powerful new value driver for brands, the food industry has been quick to shift its marketing focus from the taste and nutritional value to emphasizing positive after-effects their products provide for consumers,” says Schueller. “We’ve introduced colorful POS signage that spotlights the health benefits of different varieties of citrus.”
Finally, consumers are more focused than ever on knowing where their food comes from and how it’s grown/picked, says Howard. “Retailers can utilize our customizable merchandising and shopper-marketing programs to highlight growers of the cooperative and give consumers an exclusive inside look into the sunny California citrus groves.”