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IN SEASON / RUSS PARSONS

Feeling the Squeeze

October 21, 1998|RUSS PARSONS

It's funny how things turn around. Last year's California navel orange harvest was one of the earliest in recent memory and was the largest ever. This year's is going to be one of the latest. And as far as size is concerned, projections are that the harvest will be more than 20% less than last year.

That may sound like bad news (and it probably is for consumers), but for Shann Blue, director of grower services for California Citrus Mutual, an association of 800 citrus growers, it's just fine. Remember, he's the one who has to sell those things.

"The way I look at it, it's all a matter of supply and demand," he says. "Last year we sold 88 million cases of oranges, and obviously we had demand for it because we sold all of them. This year we're supposed to have 68 million. Now, if we've got supply of 68 million and demand for 88 million, from a marketing standpoint, we should be able to demand higher than normal prices."

Picking for this year's crop should begin in early November, four to five weeks later than normal. Last year, it started the last week of September.

Not only will this year's harvest be small in overall quantity, the individual fruit will be smaller as well. In fact, big navels are supposed to be so scarce that Blue and other growers are anticipating what they call "luxury" pricing for them.

"There's not going to be that much big fruit out there," Blue says. "So we should be able to hold onto a good price longer into the season than normal. That may mean a $4 to $5 difference in wholesale price per [37 1/2-pound] carton from one size to the next for fruit of the same quality."

So if you're buying navels for juicing, this could well be the year to concentrate on buying smaller fruit, which are just as high in quality but may cost much less than the big ones.

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