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Navels vs. Valencias : The bellybuttoned variety is ripe now, but there will be a bit of a wait for the other, sweeter type.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dotting the roads around northern Ventura County--particularly the Fillmore, Piru and Ojai areas--numerous roadside stands are doing a brisk business in oranges. Tangy, sweet and plentiful, locally harvested oranges--some of the best found in the world--attract loyal customers year round.

About 15,800 acres of Ventura County soil is committed to oranges, according to the Ventura County agricultural commissioner’s office. Most of the production is devoted to the juicy Valencia variety; the meaty navel type commands only a minimal share. Together, though, the two varieties provide orange eaters with an abundant supply of the Vitamin C-rich breakfast and snack-time staple.

Up first: the seedless navel. It’s season normally begins in December and continues through May. Then the Valencias ripen, and most of the harvest is in by the end of November.

“This year there are a lot of big navel oranges,” said local grower Tony Thacher. “There’s not as many on the tree as last year, but the fruit is much larger.”

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The fatter the better.

Navels--recognized by their bellybutton-like protrusion--are the best variety for eating out of hand, said Thacher, who is manager of Friends Ranches in Ojai. “People prefer big oranges when they’re peeling and eating,” he said.

Right now local consumers have the best of both worlds--high-quality fruit and favorable prices. Ventura County’s numerous roadside stands, including the Friends Ranches outlet on Maricopa Highway, are your best bet for freshly picked fruit.

Many of the stands are offering navels from 15 to 50 cents a pound. The cost depends on the size of the fruit--the largest command premium prices--and amount purchased. “The more you buy, the cheaper the cost,” Thacher said. “We have people come in here and buy 80 pounds at a time.”

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A check around a few area grocery stores found extra large navels for 69 to 79 cents a pound, 59 cents for smaller sizes.

While the Valencia may be the juicing king of all oranges, Ventura County’s crop goes predominantly to the fresh market, said Mike Mobley, owner of Progressive Land Management in Santa Paula. “Our quality is good enough that it can compete with the navel,” said Mobley, who manages about 550 acres of citrus and avocados.

According to the Ventura County agricultural commissioner’s 1991 crop report, the Valencia harvest--exported around the world--was worth more than $105 million, the third-highest grossing crop, behind strawberries and lemons.

The premium-quality fruit allows local growers a far greater return and spares them from resorting to a wickedly competitive juice market.

Brazilian growers control the world processing market, Mobley said, and systematically drive prices down with heavy production. The ability to enter the fresh market “can be the difference between losing and making money,” Mobley said.

“We grow better Valencias here, particularly in the Ojai-Piru area, than anywhere else, I feel,” said Thacher.

Chris Taylor, vice president of farming with Limoneira Co. in Santa Paula, said the Valencia variety is the preferred juicer because of its “classic orange-juice taste.” The navel variety is more bland, he said, and does not contain as much sugar-laden liquid. “A Valencia can be a real messy son-of-a-gun to eat out of hand,” he said.

If you decide to whip up a batch of fresh-squeezed navel O.J., be prepared to drink fast. “It will soon begin to loose its taste,” Thacher said. “It won’t be near as flavorful if you wait till the next morning to drink it.”

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Taylor said the juice undergoes a fermentation process and its natural sugars are soon lost.

When choosing fruit, the navel variety should be firm and the skin should be tight and shiny with a bright orange hue. As for the Valencia, if you notice hints of green in the peel, don’t be frightened off.

Valencia oranges often go through a “regreening” stage, growers said. The chill of the night in part determines the color, Thacher said. “When it starts to get hot, the Valencias will lose some of the orange color even though they are getting sweeter,” he said.

“The juice content and flavor is still the same or even better because it has been on the tree longer,” Taylor said.


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