After several years of strong sales, greater supplies of lemons this season have soured market prices, though there's hope the launch of a new seedless variety could help rejuvenate the category.
California lemon shippers and packers agree larger crops and overlapping harvests from different growing regions have put more pressure on the current market, with prices down from last year.
Mexico had a longer season, sending fruit as late as December when its season typically runs from July to October, said Glenn Miller, president of Saticoy Lemon Association, a cooperative packer in Ventura County. California production also rose, he added, particularly in the desert and in the San Joaquin Valley, both of which have recently added more acreage.
"Those trees are starting to produce fruit and it's turning out to be a little bit heavier than the market can take at this point," Miller said. "When supply started getting larger and the demand is going along at the same pace, then all of a sudden you have more product chasing the market."
Unlike other citrus fruits, lemons are typically used as a condiment, with the biggest demand coming from food service, said Fred Strickland, director of grower relations for Corona-College Heights Orange and Lemon Association, a shipper-packer in Riverside County. Though restaurants are steady users of lemons, they don't necessarily buy "too much more" when prices drop, he noted.
"Lemons are very inelastic," Strickland said. "Right now, lemon sales are very, very slow. There's a lot of lemons in the pipe."
Miller said even though marketers try to sell more fruit through increased promotions and other marketing activities, "it doesn't appear to be quite enough to take care of the supply that's coming off in the next few years."
Mark McBroom, who grows lemons in Imperial and Riverside counties, said demand "wasn't quite as good as we would've hoped" during his marketing window because of competition from Mexican and Chilean imports.
His season typically runs from late August to mid- or late January, but he started about three weeks late because fruit sizes were too small—then rain in November and December delayed picking even further, resulting in oversized fruit. The more-mature fruit doesn't hold up as well in the carton, he said, so he expects more of it will go to processors, which pay less than the fresh market.
Unlike production in the desert and the San Joaquin Valley, the coastal district—where most of the state's lemons grow—enjoys multiple picks, with harvest through most of the year.
Ventura County grower Will Pidduck said the fruit he's harvesting now has good size. But the recent dry spell has him worried, he said, as it will make it harder to size the fruit that will come off in the spring and early summer.
This is Pidduck's first season picking a new seedless variety being marketed by the Wonderful Co., which began selling the proprietary lemons in 1- and 2-pound bags in November, with limited supplies lasting through May. So far, Wonderful has some 3,500 acres of its seedless varieties planted in the state, with another 1,000 acres in Mexico, the company confirmed. Growers who plant the varieties must market those lemons through Wonderful.
Though seedless varieties have existed for years, they were never as productive as the traditional seeded varieties, Pidduck said, so "it was hard to tempt anybody to plant any marketable amount."
Strickland, who worked for Wonderful when it was known as Paramount Citrus, noted the company had tinkered with some of the early seedless varieties, but they were not true to type and always reverted to being seeded within a few years; some would have tiny or fewer seeds. The Wonderful varieties are "truly seedless," a company spokesperson said.
Pidduck said the variety he's growing, which came from Australia, appears to produce well, with "excellent" quality, though he doesn't yet know how it will do in the market.
Wonderful said its study shows 83% of lemon buyers "were likely to purchase a seedless lemon" and that 81% cite the inconvenience of seeds as a key reason.
Strickland said it remains to be seen whether buyers would pay 50% more for seedless lemons.
McBroom grows a small amount of a seedless variety from the University of California and said production on those trees are about 60% to 70% of the widely grown Lisbon and Eureka seeded varieties. Though he's heard good reports about Wonderful's seedless lemons, until they're proven productive and the market exists for seedless, he said he's not willing to make the investment himself.
"I think you're going to see a reluctance on growers replacing their trees with those varieties until they're really convinced that they're an equal performer," he said.
Strickland said his company is not interested in the seedless but he acknowledged Wonderful has done "a lot of research" on the market potential of seedless lemons and has "plenty of financial wherewithal" to market the product.
"(Seedless lemons) have been around a long time, but now that Wonderful has gotten ahold of them and is branding them, that's what really makes a big deal," he said.
(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
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