U.S. lemon production slow to recover from 2007 freeze

by Ron Sterk
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WASHINGTON — Although California orange trees rebounded from the severe January 2007 freeze with an expected record large naval orange crop this year, lemon trees appear to be recovering much slower and lemon production is forecast at last year’s freeze-reduced levels.

And while lemon imports have more than doubled, exports also have increased and prices are above levels that increased after the freeze, the U.S.D.A. said in its latest Fruit and Tree Nuts Outlook.

"California and Arizona lemon trees appear to still be recovering, with production forecast to remain the same as last year’s smaller-than-average crop," the U.S.D.A. said. "The freeze last January (2007) resulted in lower fruit set and smaller sized fruit."

"The timing is a little different for lemons than for oranges, and lemons are more susceptible to freeze damage," John Eliot, exchange/business development manager for the Saticoy Lemon Association, said. Lemon growing areas also were negatively affected by high winds and other weather issues last year, he said. Saticoy is a grower cooperative headquartered in Santa Paula, Calif., that markets its lemon production through Sunkist Growers, Inc.

U.S. 2007-08 (August-July) lemon production was forecast at 18.5 million 76-lb boxes (703,000 lbs), down 12% from 2006-07 and 28% below the 2005-06 crop of 25.8 million boxes (980,000 lbs). California production was forecast at 17 million boxes (646,000 lbs) this year, down 8% from 18.5 million (703,000 lbs) in 2006-07 and 23% below 22 million (836,000 lbs) in 2005-06. Arizona, the only other major grower in the U.S., was forecast to produce 1.5 million boxes (57,000 lbs) in the current year, down 40% from 2.5 million (95,000 lbs) a year earlier and down 61% from 3.8 million (144,000 lbs) two years ago, the U.S.D.A. said.

In contrast, the U.S.D.A. forecast the California naval orange crop at a record 49.5 million 75-lb boxes (1,856,000 lbs), up 43% from the freeze damaged crop of 2006-07 and 5% above the 2005-06 crop.

"We expect a bumper crop next year," Mr. Eliot said. Just as orange trees follow a stressed year with a large crop, lemon trees should do the same, he said.

Further, the U.S.D.A. noted Arizona lemon production has been declining over the past two decades and "this season’s crop is the smallest since the early 1960s."

This year’s lemon harvest is about at its midpoint but slightly behind average and of typical quality, Mr. Eliot said.

Lemon prices, meanwhile, have remained historically high.

"After the freeze in January 2007, fresh lemon prices shot up 130% between January and February, and have remained above average, in the high $30 per 76-lb box through the remainder of the season," the U.S.D.A. said. "While prices have moderated from the peak ($48.04 per box in October 2007), they still are above last year’s freeze prices and about three to four times higher than during the 2005-06 season."

The average price received by growers for fresh lemons in February was $47.10 per 76-lb box, nearly $10 above a year ago, when prices shot to $37.26 in February from $16.22 in January, the U.S.D.A. said.

"In response to this season’s tight supplies, fresh lemon imports have more than doubled from August 2007 to January 2008, over the same time last season," the U.S.D.A. said. Lemon imports for the period were 125,334,000 lbs, up 134% from 53,642,000 lbs a year earlier. Shipments from Mexico, which only recently became a major supplier to the U.S. but accounts for 70% of total imports, were up 250% for the period, the U.S.D.A. said.

Despite the smaller domestic crop, lemon exports have increased 36% from a year ago and were the highest on record for the August-January period, the U.S.D.A. said. Export prices have been above domestic prices because growers tend to export higher quality lemons.

The lemon crop in the Mediterranean region is "way off," Mr. Eliot said, which has reduced U.S. imports from Spain and contributed to the strong world market.

"American consumers can expect to continue to see high prices for fresh lemons in the retail market this summer as supplies remain tight during the peak demand time," the U.S.D.A. said. Demand typically peaks in July.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, April 15, 2008, starting on Page 22. Click here to search that archive.

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