U.S.: California expects strong citrus year, despite doubt in China

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U.S.: California expects strong citrus year, despite doubt in China

Despite a few wild cards that could shake up the season, expectations remain high for the upcoming California citrus harvest.

Following what was considered a strong showing in 2012, volume should reach close to last season, said Paul Story, director oranges_68643514of grower services at California Citrus Mutual.

"The Mandarin crop is a little larger in volume than last year. The Navel crop is going to be slightly smaller than the crop we had last year, which was a good sized crop but not a bumper crop," he told www.freshfruitportal.com.

"We did very well last year in our Navel crop. We’re looking forward to a good year again."

The caveat to the season's high expectations, however, will be lingering doubt in the Chinese market. China took California by surprise this past April after it banned citrus from the U.S. state, citing phytosanitary concerns from Phytophthora syringae, or brown rot.

The fruit rot, caused by wet ground conditions, was detected in six orange shipments from California leading up to China's decision.

"We’re in the process of negotiations. We’re trying to get the restrictions hopefully lifted prior to their peak period, prior to Chinese New Year," Story said.

"We’re hoping bilateral talks will take place early November and we hope we get it worked through. I don’t know what the odds are. With these types of negotiations, you never know."

California scientists have been working to ease the doubts of Chinese authorities but for now, the industry will have to play the waiting game, explained Jim Cranney, president of the California Citrus Quality Council.

"There have been exchanges of technical information and we’re waiting to hear back from China and find out if they're going to accept the technical information that has been supplied to open the market this year. The unfortunate thing is that we don’t really know what to expect and when they’re going to respond," Cranney said.

"The only thing I can say is that we’re optimistic. Everything else for the season looks pretty good. The crop is good and everything is in place for an average to above average year in our export markets."

Even with hopes high, ambiguity in China is no laughing matter for California citrus. China represents an important part of the market, taking in around 7% of U.S. citrus exports, according to U.S. government estimates. Last year, mainland China took in an estimated 2,557,304 cartons of citrus from the U.S. market.

"It’s definitely an important market. If for some reason the market is not open, that fruit is going to have to be sold somewhere else. That will either be in our domestic market in the United States or in other export markets. That’s a job our industry is going to have and I’m sure they’ll work to make the most of it but we would rather have the market open in China," Cranney said.

For now, Cranney said he cannot speculate as to what might happen but said California has done its work to reassure the Asian authorities.

"They want some assurance that the industry can control for Phytophthora. I think we’ve provided assurance that we would. Now we’re waiting for them to evaluate the situation and decide for themselves if they have enough assurance and whether the data satisfy their concerns that they’re not going to have repeated interceptions," he said.

Drought concerns

On the ground level, California producers face a few other key concerns this season beyond consideration of export markets. Drought in particular could create a serious barrier to production in years to come.

"We’ve had a hot summer, so we’ve got some good growth on the new crop.The heat doesn’t look like it’s had an adverse effect on the crop but going forward our biggest concerns are water and cold weather. Right now we need rain. We need wet weather or Californians are going to be in serious trouble," Story said.

Water allocations this year remain low in California. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, just 35% of water allocation requests through the State Water Project have been met and 20% have been met throught the federal Central Valley Project.

"Even if this winter provides a normal wet year, growers throughout the state are preparing for a reduced water supply as nine of the State’s major reservoirs are below historic average levels, and six of these are below 50 percent total capacity," the department said in a press statement this month.

Although this year's crop will not show the impact, Story said there is uncertainty about years to come.

"The crop is set this year. I don’t think we’ll see an affect this year but we will a year from now. It could be different if we don’t get some rain," he said.

"There isn’t really much we can do in the short term. There are things happening politically to divert more water from Northern California to the Central Valley and Southern California but those are long-term solutions."

Quarantines and citrus greening

An additional regulatory concern has been the growing number of detections of Asian citrus psyllid, the source of the disease Huanglongbing (HLB) or citrus greening.

Quarantines for the pest have been declared this season in Kern, Tulare, Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Diego, Imperial, Orange, Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

New quarantine zones in Kern and Tulare counties were announced yesterday following detections in Dinuba, Tulare County, and Wasco, Kern County. The new areas span a total of 178 square miles.

Fortunately for California, HLB has been detected just once in the state in a residential property in Hacienda Heights, Los Angeles County.

Story said the main concern from the pest is the increased work of maintaining phytosanitary regulations.

"With the Asian Citrus Phsyllid, the plant material is host not the fruit. In order to ship it, it has to be processed. The problem is getting it in or out of a quarantine area," Story said.

"The growers just have to spend more money with treatments for the psyllid. Loads coming from fields in or out of a quarantine area have to be tarped and they have to be sprayed or have the leaves removed, so that adds an expense."

Story assured that pest control will not have an impact on California's shipments and said the state is looking forward to strong year, even with a few road bumps ahead.



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