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Kern citrus growers blame smaller fruit, lower volume on summer heat

Damage from summer's hotter-than-normal weather appears to be showing up in this year's citrus crop.

Local growers say some oranges have been coming in noticeably smaller in size and volume, enough to cut into sales for both reasons.

But with the harvest expected to continue through early next year, it's hard to know how the market will react and what the net financial impact will be locally.

"Our yields look to be a little bit down but they're not done yet," said Brian Grant, executive vice president at Rio Bravo Ranch at the mouth of the Kern River Canyon. He added the quality of this year's citrus seems to be better than last year's.

Grant and others attributed the lower volume to sustained bouts of high heat a few months ago.

"It sure seems like we had a really hot, dry summer," he said.

Whether next summer will be as hot remains to be seen, but farmers have long anticipated impacts from changing weather patterns, even apart from drought.

Often there's a negative consequence for a tree not getting enough "chill hours." So, too, can sustained heat hurt output. It's worth noting some varieties do better than others in extreme temperatures.

Growers note they have been through worse. Farmers generally stay in the business only if they're willing to put up with conditions that change drastically from one year to the next.

"We're used to these fluctuations. We plan for these fluctuations," said citrus grower Dennis Johnston, a partner at Johnston Farms in the Edison area.

Johnston blames summer heat for tonnage coming in light lately and the fruit measuring smaller than before. He estimated the impact on sales so far at 5 percent to 10 percent.

"It was just too hot and they stopped growing in August, and September they just didn't do much," he said. "Over 100 degrees generally the trees start to worry about just staying alive."

As opposed to heat limiting the size of his oranges, Johnston suggested the smaller volume of fruit so far may have more to do with the orchards not getting enough cold and rainfall last winter.

Grant at Rio Bravo Ranch said navel orchards there seem to be doing better than surrounding citrus operations he hears about. Sizes are down but not by much, though it's hard to tell because the packinghouses he works with pick the largest fruit first in hopes the rest "size up."

Clementines do look to be short this year, he said, but it's hard to know for sure. He added that lack of water is probably not a primary factor because the operation is in a good water position.

Kern County citrus grower Matt Fisher, who predicted this crop's lower volume will cut his income significantly, saw a certain irony in the situation.

Demand for large Valencia oranges this summer wasn't as strong as it was for smaller Valencias, he said, because restaurants were buying smaller fruit.

With higher temperatures and less water, it could be California won't continue to grow big fruit, he said, and the market will have to adjust, "and quite frankly, the smaller fruit tastes better. That's the way I look at it."

But, he added, "the American way is bigger is better, always."

Fisher likened this year's crop to that of 2014-15, and yet somehow the small size and lower volume makes it feel like "new territory."

What happens next, he said, will depend largely on how much precipitation the region gets this winter, and how local groundwater sustainability planning works out.

He didn't sound worried.

"Farmers are built for this stuff. You just take what comes your way every year," he said. "Uncertainty is our world."