Lemons give California citrus a boost

In California, lemons formed part of an ongoing economic success story there as well. The fruit, gaining in popularity in its fresh form among U.S. consumers, is one of the top three citrus varieties in the state, the others being navels and mandarins.

“One of the reasons for our positive economic trend is that we’re fresh oriented, so we farm very intensely,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual in Exeter. “We know we’ve got to have a piece of fruit that satisfies the customer, whether it be a domestic customer or a foreign customer.”

About 20 to 25 percent of California’s citrus tonnage, according to Nelsen, is exported, with Canada as the number one market.

Regarding the lemon market, Nelsen noted “extraordinarily good prices” for the yellow fruit.

In the past, the majority of lemons in California were destined for processing. Then, a market shift occurred.

“We really didn’t see [the shift] right away, but we used to send about 60 to 65 percent of our tonnage to juice plants—now we’re sending 60 to 65 percent of our tonnage into the fresh market.”

And the reason? Put simply, consumers and restaurants are demanding and finding more uses for fresh lemons.

“Whether it’s a slice in a glass of water or iced tea, a garnish, or over fish,” Nelsen said, “lemons are being sold to a much greater degree to the fresh market than ever before and this demand exceeds our existing supply.”

Nelsen sees success not only with lemons but across the citrus board, despite an overall production downswing. While utilized citrus production in California decreased 7 percent from the 2016-17 season, the value of that production, as measured by revenue per acre, climbed.

Citrus dollars in the state of California actually increased nearly 20 percent, a harbinger of good times ahead for the Golden State’s citrus growers.

“The fact that last year’s crop was down is not a negative,” Nelsen said. “It’s just a part of an industry cycle.”

Using California navel-bearing acreage as an example, Nelsen elaborated on the growing cycle of grading, or renovating, orange groves.

“A citrus tree can produce for a long time—50 or 60 years,” he said. “After you get to that timeframe, you have to start thinking about putting in new trees that are more vigorous and will provide the size structure you truly need.”

This is an excerpt from the most recent Produce Blueprints quarterly journal. Click here to read the full article.