Orange industry quietly going seedless
You might not have noticed, because few have, but California's citrus industry is undergoing a significant transition as it tries to make seeded fruit part of its past.
In the process, growing more seedless navel oranges and lightly seeded Mandarin (tangerine) varieties has appealed to former stone-fruit farmers who have experienced low profit margins in recent years. The transition has been most intense in Tulare County, California's largest citrus producer. Fresno and Kern counties are close behind.
Most of the former tree fruit acreage recently planted to citrus is in areas that are among the warmest during the winter months. However, other growers are pushing the envelope by planting in areas traditionally colder in December and January. A degree or two makes a big difference.
Not having serious frost damage to citrus for perhaps nine years in the heavily planted San Joaquin Valley tends to lull prospective citrus growers and entice them into planting. Bob Barkley at California Citrus Mutual in Exeter says the last time winter temperatures were low enough to cause significant tree damage was 2000.
The big loser so far in the transition has been Valencia oranges. Partly because they have seeds, many think of them as more appropriate for juice than for eating out of hand. Others say the refreshing flavor of both navel oranges and the Mandarins causes consumers to favor them over Valencias. The late spring/ early summer harvest for Valencias is a consideration as well. It is out of phase with the predominantly winter harvest for navels and Mandarins.
Among the winners in the transition and the barely noticeable expansion into historically colder areas have been the manufacturers of frost-protection equipment, notably the suppliers of wind machines. Wind machines are like a good warm jacket that protects you in normal winter weather. But when the temperature drops precipitously and stays there, neither a warm jacket nor a wind machine protects completely.
If a grower/investor expects to plant citrus in an area on the fringes of the historically favorable weather pocket, wind machines are a must consideration for the new trees fresh from the nursery and throughout their lives.
Each new wind machine sets the grower/ investor back about $20,000 installed. Each machine provides frost protection for about 10 acres. A 100-acre block of new trees calls for a $200,000 outlay. When the trees start to produce in three or four years is the first chance the grower has to recoup some of his investment.
Speculative growers tend to balance their expenditures for wind machines and other major requirements against the favorable prices posted by Mandarins for the past five years or more.
One of the question marks hanging over the current expansion/transition is the work of bees. When they collect pollen in orchards of seeded varieties, they often pollinate the next seedless planting they visit, making the hybrids susceptible to seeding. The citrus and bee industries are trying to resolve this issue, but the bees don't always respond to their logic.
To continue appealing to the strong consumer preference for seedless citrus fruit, many citrus growers place netting over their trees in the early spring in anticipation of heavy bee flights in and out of seeded citrus orchards and other tree fruit and nut plantings, especially almonds. It is a costly and awkward step, but one regarded as a necessity by most growers.
Inputs never seem to end. But growers and suppliers to California's well-entrenched citrus industry continue to invest in, support and expand one of the major historical features of the state's agricultural empire, whether the rest of us notice or not.
CONTACT Don Curlee at email@example.com