This month's California citrus freeze has South Jersey's Dandrea Produce Co. Inc. scrambling to find other supplies.
As a major importer of clementines from Spain, Dandrea Produce has an inside track on landing some of that country's naval oranges and lemons, which normally stay in Europe or go to other markets worldwide.
"Those people who are already importing clementines, they are already recognized in Spain," said Frank Dandrea, president of the Buena, N.J., company his grandfather founded in 1917.
About 15 companies import clementines from Spain into the United States, with Dandrea Produce and two others accounting for the bulk of the business.
Dandrea said the Atlantic County company, which he owns with his brothers, Steven and Ronald, began planning for an expansion of Spanish imports as soon as they heard the forecast of freezing temperatures in California's citrus belt, where $800 million worth of fruit was damaged.
Even so, the company's first shipments of lemons will not arrive until the first week of February, and the first naval oranges will arrive about the middle of next month, Dandrea said.
Dandrea Produce imports from 13 countries, and it supplies most major supermarket chains in the eastern half of the United States.
The company and its Spanish suppliers plan clementine shipments in late summer to ensure space on ocean liners, Dandrea said. "With the oranges, nobody set those plans in place, because nobody intended to ship here," he said. "Then you get the freeze, and everybody wants to ship here."
This is not the first time U.S. produce distributors have turned to Spain in a pinch.
After the last major California citrus freeze, in 1998, the value of fresh oranges imported from Spain jumped from $10,000 in 1998 to $17.6 million in 1999 and then fell to $714,000 in 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service.
Overall U.S. imports of fruits and vegetables jumped from $6.5 billion in 1995 to $14 billion in 2005, with shipping facilities along the Delaware River playing an important role in the rise of Spanish clementines and Chilean grapes, peaches and nectarines.
While Spain is an important alternative source of citrus, it is not the only country distributors are eyeing to make up for the loss of up to 75 percent of this season's California harvest.
For example, Four Seasons Produce Inc., of Ephrata, Pa., may import valencia oranges from Mexico, said the company's president and chief operating officer, Ron Carkoski. Four Seasons has a year-round business importing Mexican limes.
When the fruit from Spain, Mexico and elsewhere begins arriving, it will help slow the surge in prices, even as prices worldwide drift upward to a point where supply and demand balance out.
At the Philadelphia Regional Produce Terminal, the wholesale price of certain grades of naval oranges has more than doubled, from $15.50 for a case of 72 oranges Jan. 4 to as much as $35 yesterday, according to the federal Agriculture Department's agricultural marketing services.
At Landis Supermarket in Perkasie, jumbo oranges from California cost $1.39 apiece, up 30 cents from before the freeze, produce manager Steve Keyser said yesterday.
While most of the attention has been on citrus because it is such a high-value crop, the freeze damaged a wide range of items, including lettuce, celery, broccoli and strawberries. The berries are up to $4 a pint from about $3, Keyser said.
"We haven't heard too much yet" in the way of complaints from consumers, Keyser said. "Everybody's accepted the fact that this was going to happen."