US (CA): Citrus industry sees big increase in mandarin market

In California's commercial citrus industry, navel oranges dominate the market, with nearly 135,000 acres in groves across the state in 2010, mostly in the Central Valley. But a tinier — and some might say cuter — citrus fruit is on the verge of knocking lemons and Valencia oranges off their respective perches as the state's No. 2 and 3 citrus crops. That rising fruit are mandarins. Growers are quick to say they're not oranges, and while they're generally small and have easy-to-peel skins, like tangerines, mandarins are their own category of citrus. "They are, by far, the fastest growing citrus commodity in the last 50 years, or so. They have really taken off," Al Bates said of mandarins. He's the general manager of Sun Pacific, which operates groves and packing houses for citrus and other fruits in the Tulare and Exeter areas, as well as other parts of the state.

On Tuesday, workers at the company's packing house east of Tulare were busy sorting and packing thousands of 2-, 3- and 5-pound bags of Clementine mandarins to be shipped to grocery stores here as well as Canada, Mexico and Japan. Since Sun Pacific bought the plant and renovated it five years ago, Bates said the amount of Clementines and other mandarins sorted and bagged here under the "Cuties" brand name has nearly doubled and is the primary reason the packing house has added about 200 workers. And Sun Pacific's partner in packing Cuties, Paramount Citrus, is building a new 600,000-square-foot packing house in Delano that also will pack Cuties when it opens next year to keep up with demand, Bates said.

Total acreage of mandarins planted in California has grown from just under 16,000 in 2002 — when the fruit still was relatively new — to 38,826 in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2010 California Citrus Acreage Report. About 9,800 acres were in Tulare County, second-most behind 14,762 acres in Kern County. Based on total acres planted, mandarins placed a distant fourth in total commercial citrus acreage planted in 2010 behind navels, but was close behind lemons, at 44,477 acres, and Valencias, at 42,540 acres. There's a good chance that may change soon, said Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for California Citrus Mutual, a grower cooperative based in Exeter.

"We've certainly seen the mandarins [production] increase because of consumer demands," he said, adding that when the next USDA report comes out this summer, "I would expect when we see that, we will see mandarins will have surpassed Valencias and may have even surpassed lemons. Mandarins seem poised to take the No. 2 spot, said Nick Hill, vice president of Green Leaf Farms, Inc., which has 120 acres of mandarin groves in northern Tulare and southern Fresno counties. He thinks mandarin acreage in the state could one day surpass navel orange acreage. Tulare County had 72,197 acres of commercial navel oranges planted in 2010, more than half of the state's total. The reasons mandarins have grow so popular requires an understanding of the fruit and how it came to commercial groves in California. Though the fruit has its origin in Southeast Asia, "A lot of the mandarins we have now came out of Morocco and Spain" during about the past 15 to 20 years, Hill said.

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