The U.S. lemon market is facing a significant shortage due to low domestic production, lighter-than-anticipated imports from Latin America, and strong demand for the fresh product, industry sources say.
With little fruit available, prices have seen a sharp rise over recent weeks, but the situation is expected to return to normal going into the fall.
“The most pressing issue at this time is an undersupplied market with rapidly increasing prices caused by below-average supplies of summer California lemons,” said Zak Laffite, chief sales officer at Wonderful Citrus – the U.S.’s largest lemon grower.
California lemon supply is traditionally at its lowest during the summer months, with the desert and Central Valley out-of-season and all supplies coming from the state’s coastal region, he said.
Laffite explained the situation has been worse this year due to the crop’s early maturity and the recent heatwave that caused fruit drop for a portion of the remaining crop.
In addition, imported lemons are down by a long way.
“Imported lemons traditionally represent 20-25% of the US lemon supply between late June and mid-July, and this season’s volumes are down 50% against the same period last year,” he said.
“Chile and Mexico collectively account for 90% of the imported lemons during those four weeks, and both are off to a much slower start to their season.”
He said U.S. market prices had been running slightly above last year until last week when there was a “sharp uptick”.
California Citrus Mutual (CCM) president Joel Nelsen also explained that demand for fresh lemons has increased significantly over the last several years.
“I can remember it wasn’t too many years ago that it was 60 – 65% of our lemons would go to a processing plant,” he said.
“Well, today 60 – 65% of lemons are going into fresh packing and we just can’t keep up with the demand. We’ve planted more trees, but it takes four years for production to come online.”
In addition, he said Chilean lemon imports have been lower than expected, while Argentine volume “never materialized as anticipated” and the Mexican product has been “somewhat inconsistent.”
“Add those three things up and you have fewer fresh lemons coming into the United States, increased demand, and less product right now from California,” he said.
“It’s not a good situation for the consumer, but having said that, this thing will get back to normal once we resume the major portion of our harvest which will be around September or October.”
Laffite also predicted the situation would normalize around that time of the year.
“The start of harvest out of the California desert and San Joaquin Valley, along with the late Chilean and Mexican lemon imports, should begin to drive up supply in late September or early October,” he said.
The perspective from Chile
Chilean Citrus Committee president Juan Enrique Ortuzar said the lemon deal is running slower than in 2017, with industry so far having shipped 36,000MT to all markets compared to 46,000MT by the same time last year.
Rainy weather over recent weeks has delayed harvests for a range of citrus crops.
For lemons, the association has forecast total exports of 77,000 metric tons (MT), which is in line with last year.
Ortuzar pointed out that while year-on-year shipments are lower to the European and North American markets, to Asia they are running higher.
“Last season was exceptional – everything was very fast,” he said, explaining this year represented a return to a normal pace.
He explained that the high demand in the U.S. market improved the prospects for the remainder of the Chilean lemon campaign, but said it was premature to speak about how much Chile would benefit as other suppliers could also take advantage of the situation.