New orange crop could face obstacles in California

California navel orange growers say they may have a promising season this year -- if they can avoid a major freeze and dodge a citrus pest.

While 2008's navel orange crop is estimated at 34% less than last year's crop of 97 million cartons, the fruit coming out of the central San Joaquin Valley's groves is a good size and good tasting, citrus industry officials said.

The Valley, the heart of the state's $1.1 billion citrus industry, began harvesting oranges about two weeks ago and will continue for several months. "Right now, things look pretty good," said Jim Marderosian, president of Bee Sweet Citrus in Fowler, a citrus packinghouse. "Last year, we came off one of the largest crops in history, so a smaller crop is not going to hurt us. It may actually help."

At the grocery store, oranges are selling from $1 to $1.89 a pound, while at the farm level, a 40-pound box of oranges is fluctuating between $10 to $16, said David Roth, president of Cecelia Packing in Orange Cove.

"That is a good price right now," Roth said. "Last season, prices were so low, I'm not even sure it was a break-even year for some people."

And while prices are improving for citrus growers, looming on the horizon is the continued battle against a tiny citrus pest with the potential to carry a deadly disease.

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