ORANGE GROVES SPREAD SUNSHINE : CROP SEEN AS SWEETEST IN YEARS.
For Underwood Farms, this season's orange crop has been nothing short of juicy - in every sense of the word.
The orange orchards next to Underwood Farms Markets' roadside fruit and vegetable stands are producing the best crop in several years, said James Barker, a partner in the Somis-based business. The golden orbs are about 20 percent larger than the navel oranges produced by Underwood trees last year, he said.
``I would say it's been an excellent year for oranges - flavor and sizes have been good this year,'' Barker said. ``Some years the fruit has been smaller than you would like.''
Barker isn't certain what helped produce such a good crop this year. ``If I knew the reason why, I think I'd be a rich man.''
Industry experts, however, attribute the successful season to a combination of mild winter temperatures and steady soaking rains.
The Southern California orange crop this year is about the best its been in several years. That trend could get consumers coming back for more - and improve what has been a sagging overall market, according to Sunkist Growers, the cooperative based in Sherman Oaks.
Navel oranges - generally grown from October until May - came of age, so to speak, earlier in the season than usual, said Andrea Boyle, Sunkist consumer affairs manager.
``They were sweet and juicy early in the year,'' Boyle said. ``That means that when the consumer bites into the first of the season, they're really turned on and they're going to come back for more.
``That's really important - how good they are early in the season.''
Sunkist does not have statistics solely for Ventura County. But there has been a bumper crop for the district that includes the county and ranges from Paso Robles south to San Diego and east to Riverside and San Bernardino.
The number of cartons of navel oranges produced in the district this winter numbered 2 million, compared with 1.6 million last year.
The summer Valencia crop amounted to 15.5 million cartons, compared with 12 million last year.
The Valencia growing season runs from April through November.
Although it's too early to tell the future for Valencia oranges, Boyle said they should also do well if the weather continues to be favorable and the area doesn't get, for example, high winds that can scar the fruit.
``I would predict a good crop of Valencias this summer,'' Boyle said.
The Underwood crop is an encouraging sign amid what has been a trend of poor returns for Ventura County orange growers.
While some growers report less-than-satisfactory quality fruit, others are slowly scaling back production and switching to other more profitable crops.
For John Borchard, the juice dribbled out of this year's crop because it didn't get cool enough to stop the trees and fruit from growing, resulting in early maturity.
``It means that the fruit doesn't have much life,'' he said. ``Come the middle of the summer, it'll be out of gas.''
A worldwide glut of oranges also has put a damper on price increases needed to counter increased production costs associated with oranges. At the same time, land values for other crops have increased, making them more profitable to grow.
Over the past five years in Ventura County, the value of land holding orange groves has fallen from a range of $15,000-$22,000 per acre in 1991 to $12,000-$20,000 in 1996. By contrast, the value of land with lemon groves has risen from a range of $18,000-$25,000 per acre in 1991 to $20,000-$28,000 in 1996, according to a report by the California Chapter of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers.
Alan Vorhees said that the groves he manages are being changed over from oranges to lemons. Of the 100 acres once devoted to oranges only 20 now remain. And those 20 acres should also be growing lemons in the future, he said.
``Oranges are just not practical to grow in this area,'' Vorhees said. ``You might have one good year out of 10, and lemons - at least for the past 10 years - have been reasonably predictable, with good incomes.''