While Texas citrus growers will be faced with difficult, major issues in the near future, financial success should be realized by paying closer attention to what consumers are communicating through their purchasing decisions.

That was how one citrus analyst, David Mixon, Sealed Sweet Growers Inc., Vero Beach, Fla., sized up the market during a speech delivered at the annual Texas Produce Convention recently at South Padre Island.

Mixon said the fastest growing citrus commodity in North America is, surprisingly, the clementine.

While clementines were hardly visible in the marketplace five years ago, now the fruit accounts for 13 million tons produced annually.

“This is a commodity that in all reality no one in America would have said would be successful. It's only a small fruit,” Mixon said.

Yet, he said growers should recognize that a clementine's characteristics indicate consumer preferences: It has vivid color, it has a soft peel, is seedless and offers a consistent taste.

Also, clementines' popularity likely indicates that the fruit is being purchased by Hispanics - the country's largest minority group and now the majority race in Texas.

“It's what the consumer wants, and not what we want to sell them,” he said.

Data as key

Consequently, Mixon said the citrus growing community must look to ensure that work is being conducted in variety trials and with marketing efforts to accommodate consumers' wants, such as the case with clementines.

The outlook for Texas citrus begins and ends with the consumer, not the retailer, he said.

“It's what does the consumer want, not what we think we can sell: You have to always keep that absolutely first and foremost in your mind,” he said. “Do we know, as suppliers and growers, what consumers are buying and why they are buying what they are? If you don't know that you need to. We have less information than is necessary. We need to know what the consumer needs and wants.”

The other necessary step toward improved success, Mixon said, concerns educating the consumer on what various citrus products have to offer.

“We have to educate the consumer. There's no way we can do this alone. It's too expensive,” he said.

An available option, he said, is the retail salesman who could be a helpful partner in the process, while arranging demonstration booths in stores — also a key.

“We must set up promotions with our retailers with the idea of providing information. We must do demonstrations. Why? It is a way of educating consumers instantly about the right product at the right time,” he said.

“The fact is, consumers every day are walking into stores and making future purchasing decisions based on that day.”

The Florida factor

Because Florida is the leading citrus producing state, Texas producers are compelled to monitor its status.

Mixon said Florida growers still face three serious problems, two of which concern natural disasters.

“Presently, the reduction of citrus supply in Florida has been devastated because of hurricanes last year,” he said.

The 2005 outlook, in terms of fill boxes, peg Florida for about 200 million oranges - a slight decrease, and about 23 million grapefruits - a jump from 13 million in 2004.

However, Mixon said the biggest concern in Florida remains tree canker disease. As of July 25, 5 million acres of commercial trees have been designated for destruction.

“Yet another problem is that the No. 1 thing to grow in Florida is housing. You want to grow something, grow a house,” he said, noting that in 2001 there were about 36 million early and mid-season fruit bearing trees while in 2004 there were 31 million.

“Where are the trees going? It's not canker. It's urban sprawl and it is going to continue,” he said. “Florida in the future is not going to be the No. 1 citrus producer because it can't afford it, the cost of raw land is too expensive.”

While a recent hurricane wiped out about 80 percent of the current grapefruit crop in Cuba, a huge navel crop is expected from California. Meanwhile, China has quickly become the world's largest producer of tangerines.

“And when you look at Mexico, it becomes the land of opportunity. They will become a major producer of citrus for the North American market in the near future. They are already producing a great deal of it.”

Nevertheless, Mixon expressed realistic hope for a successful future for citrus growers in Texas.

“It's definitely in the realm that Texas citrus can be successful. We are in the process of knowing that we can do the job properly. We must fit in the pieces in terms of developing a product for the consumer.

“If we do not do that we are not going to be successful. But we have the right pieces in place and we have good Extension agencies and good direction with our experiment stations. We just have to produce what the consumer wants.

“The future is in our hands. If we go to the market with the knowledge to succeed, then we will succeed.”

e-mail: abell@primediabusiness.com