Lemons are a popular organic produce item, and growers have taken note recently and increased their acreage—which, in turn, has been driving down prices.
President of Sespe Creek Organics John Wise, who has been growing organic lemons year-round in Ventura County, CA, for more than 35 years, said he’s seen a rise in the fruit’s availability in the market.
John Wise, President, Sespe Creek Organics
“It seems like every year the supply of organic lemons is increasing from both domestic and international growers,” he said. “Last year, the price of organic lemons was for the most part in the doldrums. With added supplies, this downward trend should continue for the near future.”
Wise said in 2020 and 2021, organic lemon pricing was “very strong,” which he attributes in part to the COVID-related trend of people “eating at home and looking for healthier food choices.” But as the pandemic has subsided and growers have continued adding organic acreage, the pricing outlook appears tepid.
“It seems like every year the supply of organic lemons is increasing from both domestic and international growers.” - John Wise
Bianca Kaprielian, CEO of Fruit World, which has a year-round California organic lemon program, shared a similar take to Wise.
Bianca Kaprielian, CEO, Fruit World
“With a slightly softer demand more recently coupled with Mexico exporting fruit well beyond their typical window, pricing this year and in 2022 has been some of the lowest we’ve experienced for a sustained period,” she said.
Kaprielian noted that “both Mexico and Argentina have some major organic acreage,” which has been a challenge at the start of the California season when there is about two months of overlap of strong volume.” She said lower labor and growing costs in Mexico can make it difficult for California organic lemon growers to compete.
“When there is a lot of fruit on the market in October and November, it keeps the prices down, and it can be hard to make California-grown fruit pencil out,” she said. “We do see this new reality of increased supply and lower pricing as a longer-term trend.”
Covilli Organics—which has a summer organic lemon program out of Mexico (and just recently added a new lemon grower with late fall–early spring availability)—has also observed downward price pressure on organic lemons.
“We do see this new reality of increased supply and lower pricing as a longer-term trend.” - Bianca Kaprielian
In fact, Covilli President Alex Madrigal said that last year he ended his organic lemon summer deal early. “We stopped at mid-August versus going to the end of August/early September because the market wasn't there,” he said.
Alex Madrigal, President, Covilli Organics
Prior to the summer of 2022, Madrigal said the market had been “pretty steady,” noting that he was able to hit $60 per carton on average, with some peak windows of $80. But he said this past summer, those peak windows “didn’t happen—and I think that's just a function of more supply in the marketplace.”
Madrigal said he’s noticed that a number of citrus growers in the Mexican state of Sonora have ripped out their organic Valencia groves and replaced them with organic lemons because historically the latter have enjoyed higher prices. “I think that's going to probably blow up in their face because everybody's doing the same,” he said, noting that California growers have also been increasing their organic lemon acreage. “The markets I think are going to go lower for a few years while everybody figures out where they're at.”
On the wholesaler side of things, Purchaser Flora Darby of San Francisco-based Veritable Vegetable echoed Madrigal’s comments on the shift in pricing that occurred last summer.
Flora Darby, Purchaser, Veritable Vegetable
Speaking of the 2023 outlook, she said, “We don't think prices will hit the highs we typically see in the summer; rather, we expect pricing to be similar to last year. Historically prices head to the $70s and $80s FOB/case in July and August on the West Coast, but last year, prices stayed flat and peaked in late August around $60.”
Darby noted that some of Veritable’s lemon growers have added organic acreage, which she said could be the reason the high price peaks ceased last summer. She also speculated that shifts in weather patterns may have played a role.
“The markets I think are going to go lower for a few years while everybody figures out where they're at.” - Alex Madrigal
While Veritable sells predominantly Eureka lemons, Darby said that specialty varieties, including lemonade lemons, seedless lemons, T’orange, pink variegated, and Sorrento lemons, are becoming more popular.
She said Meyer lemons are also “growing in popularity for their distinctive flavor quality and low-acid profile. Ubiquitous in the Bay Area for many years, Meyer lemons are yet to be ‘discovered’ in many regions—keep an eye on them,” she said.
Over on the East Coast, Myles Chasser, organic and conventional fruit buyer for Four Seasons Produce, said he’s also seeing depressed organic lemon prices.
Myles Chasser, Organic and Conventional Fruit Buyer, Four Seasons Produce
“With a plethora of fruit from both Mexico and California, markets are at recent historical lows,” he said. “With all the rain and snowpack, I expect we will see excellent supply and low markets for at least the next couple of years.”
Chasser noted that in years past, organic lemon supplies had been very tight in August, sending the East Coast market soaring above $100. But more recently, he said, Chile has been able to fill that gap. (Four Seasons’ sister company Earth Source is a major importer of Chilean lemons to the US.)
“With all the rain and snowpack, I expect we will see excellent supply and low markets for at least the next couple of years.” - Myles Chasser
Despite the lower pricing—which isn’t optimal for organic lemon growers—there is still some good news this year for the commodity.
“The quality of California fruit this season has been very strong,” Kaprielian shared. “The percentage of fancy grade has been high, and the fruit has legs.”
Wise, who said that lemons are his favorite crop to grow and sell, noted that the significant California rainfall in January has been very beneficial. “After the prolonged drought, our lemon trees have responded beautifully to the recent storms,” he said. “Also, fruit sizes should be bigger this year due to the recent rains.”
Chasser agreed: “With the recent huge amount of California rains, we expect supplies to be excellent in the near future with good quality and sizing.”