Written by The Business Journal Staff
Mandarin plantings, production and value have grown substantially in recent years, landing the citrus fruit on the top 10 for Fresno County crop value for the first time.
The fruit, which originated in China and Southeast Asia and is an improved version of the tangerine, has a deep orange-red color and easy-to-peel skin. It hit the 9 spot on the top 10 valued-crops in the recently–released 2015 Fresno County Crop Report.
Gross value of mandarins more than doubled to $153.8 million compared to $72.8 million in 2014.
The crop report stated that mandarin gross value jumped because of increased production and higher prices received. Fresno County mandarin production increased from 9.98 tons per acre in 2014 to 13.66 tons per acre in 2015.
“The return is great and demand exceeds supply,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual in Exeter. “Marketing programs for brands like Halos, Cuties and Smiles have created a huge consumer following. There has been a lot of money put into this.”
The marketing efforts have not only helped mandarin sales, but have brought more interest to citrus in general. Gross value of oranges has also been on the rise.
Oranges followed mandarins as the 10th highest-valued crop with a gross value of $153.8 million, compared to $133.6 million in 2014.
The top crop in Fresno County for the past two years is almonds, which had a 2015 gross value of $1.2 billion.
Expansion of California’s mandarin crop began in the late 1990s. Since that time plantings have shot up from 5,000 acres to 50,000 acres. California now harvests 92 percent of the nation’s mandarin crop.
Some local citrus growers, such as Bee Sweet Citrus in Fowler, entered the mandarin market when production was in its early stages. “Bee Sweet Citrus has been farming mandarins for over 20 seasons, providing year-round supply, which includes offshore fruit out of Chile,” said Jason Sadoian, the company’s sales representative.
Since the ‘90s consumption of mandarins has doubled nationally to five pounds a year per person.
“We will see production growth in the years to come,” Sadoian said.
A number of factors have led to the big jump in popularity. The fruit is easy to peel and eat, is available in seedless varieties and comes in convenient consumer boxes and bags.
Packaging is brightly colored, making it hard to miss on the supermarket produce shelf.
“Consumers love them,” Nelsen said, adding that retailers like to promote them.
Sadoian agreed. “More marketing efforts have been put into place to target healthy eating trends and improving child nutrition in the United States,” he said.
Sadoian added that developing seedless mandarins have helped boost sales. “Families are now confident that their children and household can enjoy this healthy snack without the fear of choking or consuming seeds during every bite.”
Mandarins are often sold in high-graphic cartons and bags. Consumers like to grab the containers and bags and throw them in their carts without having to weigh or bag the fruit.
Bags are especially successful. “Bags are still the popular selling unit, easy to grab and fits nicely in home refrigerators,” Sadoian said.
Bee Sweet Citrus, which markets its mandarins under the “Sweethearts” brand name, provides a 20-pound open tray with four five-pound bags inside. It also has a 25-pound half-bushel container and an eight-pound high-graphic bag.
The company produces four varieties: Satsuma, available from October through November; Clementine, available November and December; Page, available in December and January and W. Murcott, available late January through May.
An extended growing season also helps to maintain popularity of the fruit.
Nelsen said that the consistently sweet flavor of mandarins has been an important factor in the fruit’s popularity. It also put pressure on navel orange growers to change maturity standards for navels that would also ensure a consistently sweet flavor.
So five years ago the industry adopted changes to improve the taste of oranges.
It helped ensure that early fruit was just as favorable as fruit picked later in the season. “The first piece of fruit must be a good piece of fruit,” Nelsen said.
He added that popularity of mandarins has helped boost demand for citrus in general.
Mandarins have cut into navel orange sales
Despite positive impacts on overall citrus sales, mandarins have cannibalized a portion of the navel orange market as some citrus-buying consumers decided they liked mandarins more than oranges.
“Navel oranges have always been a staple in the citrus industry for many years, but now families can enjoy the healthy benefits of vitamin C in a much more compact form with mandarins,” Sadoian said. “They’re easier to peel and sweeter in taste compared to most navels during the season.”
Mandarin success has resulted in the fruit taking some store shelf space that was previously reserved for oranges.
Mandarins are generally available from November through April. Mulholland Citrus in Orange Cove extended its mandarin growing season by growing three varieties of mandarins, Satsuma, Clementine and W. Murcott.
That made it possible to offer fresh mandarins from October to May. And with imported product, some growers including Bee Sweet Citrus, can further extend the season from mid-May through October.
Mulholland Citrus is a major local citrus grower that in 2014 formed a partnership with Paramount Citrus in Delano in which Mulholland Citrus grows and packs its mandarins under the Wonderful Halos brand name.
New plantings continue
Anticipating continued growth of mandarins, growers have responded with more plantings. A 2016 California Citrus Acreage Report states that “Mandarins are where the real activity has taken place.”
The report shows a 20,115-acre increase since 2010, a 52-percent increase. Total reported acreage is 58,941 acres.
“Our plan is to continue production for the years to come and to keep up with consumer demand,” Sadoian said.
Tulare County has 16,914 acres of mandarins, compared to 16,310 acres in Kern County. Fresno County had 14,472 harvested acres in 2015, according to the 2015 Fresno county crop report.
Statewide, the most popular variety of mandarins is Tangos at 12,089 acres followed by W. Murcott at 10,237 acres and Clemenules at 7,986 acres.