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It’s been tough times for the US lemon industry the last couple of years. Why? The Covid-19 pandemic, of course.

Lemon growers are particularly reliant on sales of second-grade – or Class 2 – fruit to the foodservice sector. Restaurants, schools and hotels really don’t care if lemons have excessive scaring or are a bit misshapen, because this fruit will be processed for use in cuisines or juiced.

With the foodservice sector shuttering en masse from the pandemic early in 2020, demand for second-grade lemons basically evaporated, leaving growers in a quandary about what to do with a substantial share of their annual production. That season also happened to be one with a higher percentage of second-grade lemons due to excessive scarring from wind.

California and Arizona lemon growers also count on diverting significant tonnage to export markets to support returns at home. With the pandemic suddenly shutting down key markets in the Pacific Rim, massive disruption to the supply chain resulted, effectively denying the US lemon industry another important outlet.

According to USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) data, lemon export volumes to Pacific Rim destinations fell by 31 per cent between 2018 and 2021, with the largest market, Japan, declining by 57 per cent. In general during those years, exports of US-grown lemons dropped by 23 per cent – from around 85,000 tonnes to 65,400 tonnes.

Although Covid-19 is still creating chaos within the world’s distribution channels, US lemon suppliers have reasons to be optimistic as the 2021/22 season begins to ramp up.

“Fruit movement, so far, has been better overall compared to last year,” said Mark Golden of Umina Bros in early January.

“How much impact the pandemic will have on foodservice is still the big question, especially with the Omicron (variant) now taking over. But the ‘genie is out of the bottle’ so to speak because people don’t want to go back into lockdown again, so I’m more optimistic than I was last year at this point.”

Helping matters is the fact that California was presented with an early Christmas present in the form of record December precipitation. While not ending the current drought, heavy snowfall in the Sierra Nevada Mountains bodes well for refilling many of the state’s bone-dry reservoirs. The welcome rains should enable California citrus of all varieties to increase a size or two.

“The rain will definitely help lemons to grow a little more,” said Golden. “Actually, the wet weather crimped supplies somewhat over the holidays, as most orchards were too wet for picking. Things have dried out since and growers are now size-picking in the San Joaquin Valley and along the coast and stripping the last of the desert fruit.”

Once the rains subsided, nighttime temperatures dropped dramatically, which helped fruit colouring and minimised ethylene gassing, according to Golden.

“The real question is whether we’ll see more rain this season,” he added.

Despite the somewhat shorter supplies, FOB prices on the domestic market have reportedly been below last year’s levels at this point in the season. Golden speculates that this could be due to the presence of Southern Hemisphere lemons that remained on the market into December. In normal times, demand from export markets usually helps support domestic prices.

“Exports from District One (San Joaquin Valley) and District Two (Southern California coast) are starting now (early January),” said Golden. “Much of this is going through the Port of Oakland and avoiding the shipping quagmire out of the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

“However, with trucking costs ‘through the roof’ and more dockworkers coming down with Covid-19 every week, this could impact exporting and keep more fruit on the domestic market than we’d like to see. Overall, it’s a better scenario than last year, especially with the foodservice sector coming back.”

According to the USDA, US lemon production is expected to increase by 9.5 per cent this season, from 44.6m cartons (18.1kg) to 48.8m cartons. Approximately 94 per cent of the country’s lemons are grown in California.