Lemons grow California’s export market

Lemons emerge as the new fresh market crop to grow the California export market

By Jay Pederson
Blueprints Magazine

TULARE COUNTY – Citrus fruits represent the most important fruit tree crop in the world.

This colossal industry encompasses oranges, mandarins, tangelos, tangerines, grapefruit, lemons, limes, and other related fruits with production exceeding 120 million metric tons each year according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. China leads the way in overall citrus production, followed by Brazil, India, the United States, and Mexico.

In the United States, the top producers are California, Florida, Texas, and Arizona, and it’s no surprise oranges continue to lead the domestic citrus category. Next up are lemons, tangerines, and mandarins, with the last two typically grouped as a single subset.

Part of this subset are the remarkably popular and small but mighty clementines, which continue to take the industry by storm. But don’t forget about lemons—demand continues to outpace supply for this bright contender—so read on to find what’s hot in citrus and this year’s crop predictions.

In California, lemons formed part of an ongoing economic success story there as well. The fruit, gaining popularity in the 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,” comments Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual in Exeter. “We know we’ve got to have a piece of fruit that satisfies the consumer, whether it be a domestic customer or a foreign customer.” About 20 to 25% 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% 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,” points out Nelsen, “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 downsizing. 

While utilized citrus production in California decreased 7% 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%, 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,” asserts Nelsen. “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. 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.”

While the citrus industry is in flux with more than its fair share of highs and lows, what hasn’t changed is the dedication of those who continue to grow, ship, or sell high-quality, great-tasting citrus. They also continue to adapt and anticipate new trends while investing for the future.

“We’ve experienced incremental gains in our citrus category going back several years, and we look forward to continuing to build our business,” said John Rast, founder and president of Rast Produce as well as trucking firm Sierra Agricultural Transportation, Inc., Visalia, CA.

“Citrus, in particular, is an exciting commodity to be involved with currently and we see the trend of consumption only increasing, especially here in the United States.”

Rast also points out the human element for success in the perishables trade: “We’ve been in business over 20 years, and we credit that to the relationships built over time within the industry. The growth of our business is a testament to the people we work with, and we’ve found a great group of people to build our business around.”

Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual in Exeter, takes a more tangential view. “I think the momentum we’ve created by addressing consumer trends is going to sustain the profitability of this industry.”

Better yet, he points out, “Each one of the citrus varieties did well last year. Indeed, the revenue per acre was positive, and I think that’s going to be the trend for the foreseeable future.”

Jay Pederson is a Minnesota-based business writer, researcher, and former editor of the International Directory of Company Histories. 

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