Ag Today December 21, 2016

New lemon import rules leave California growers bitter

BY TIM SHEEHAN

tsheehan@fresnobee.com

A new rule issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow the import of lemons from Argentina is leaving a sour taste in the mouths of California lemon growers.

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service published the rule Tuesday. But California Citrus Mutual, a statewide industry advocacy organization, described the rule’s issuance just days before Christmas as a “lump of coal” for growers in the state.

Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, said his organization’s members not only fear the imports may depress prices, but also worry they could spread pests and diseases to U.S. lemon groves. He said he is reaching out to members of Congress in hopes of prevailing upon the incoming Trump administration to reverse the rule.

California is the largest lemon-producing state in the U.S., with about 47,000 acres of bearing trees out of about 55,300 acres nationwide, according to the USDA.

Ventura County accounts for more than one-third of California’s lemon acreage, with about 17,000 acres producing nearly 280,000 tons in 2014. In Tulare and Fresno counties, lemons accounted for about 10,400 acres that produced a combined 121,500 tons of fruit with a crop value of about $120.6 million in 2015, according to the two counties’ respective crop reports.

The USDA said the change comes after 10 years of reviewing citrus production and packing practices in Argentina and evaluating pest risks. “APHIS has determined lemons produced in northwest Argentina can be safely imported into the continental United States using a systems approach,” the agency said. The USDA expects imports of fresh lemons from Argentina to range between 16,500 and 22,000 tons each year.

THE USDA IS GOING TO CREATE A PRICE WAR. THIS WILL MEAN A SIGNIFICANT DROP IN REVENUES FOR LEMON GROWERS. …

Joel Nelsen, California Citrus Mutual president

Most of that, Nelsen said, would come into the U.S. between April and August, in direct competition with growers in Southern California who harvest from March through early September. In the San Joaquin Valley, the lemon harvest runs from November into March, Nelsen said.

“The USDA is going to create a price war,” Nelsen said Tuesday. “This will mean a significant drop in revenues for lemon growers in Ventura County, and that carries over into the San Joaquin Valley.”

Nelsen said that many of California’s lemon producers are family farmers, but asserted that “Argentina is dominated by corporate growers, about 12 to 15 producers that manage 60 to 65 percent of the tonnage there.”

Between prices for water, pesticide regulations and labor costs, California “is one of the most expensive production areas in the U.S.,” Nelsen said. “It’s just expensive to farm here.” The Argentine citrus industry operates with lower production costs, lower regulatory costs and lower labor costs, so “there’s no way we’re going to be competing with them economically.”

The rule also outlines a series of steps to minimize the risk of pests and diseases being spread by importing fresh lemons from Argentina, including:

▪ “registration and monitoring of places of production and packinghouses”

▪ “pest-free places of production”

▪ “grove sanitation, monitoring, and pest-control practices”

▪ “treatment with a surface disinfectant”

▪ “lot identification”

▪ “inspection for quarantine pests by the Argentine national plant protection organization.”

Lemons coming from that part of Argentina also would have to be harvested green or treated for Mediterranean fruit flies, and shipments must have a certification that they have been inspected and found to be free of quarantine pests.

THIS ACTION ALLOWS FOR THE IMPORTATION OF LEMONS FROM NORTHWEST ARGENTINA INTO THE UNITED STATES, WHILE CONTINUING TO PROVIDE PROTECTION AGAINST THE IMPORTATION OF QUARANTINE PESTS.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service

Richard Pidduck, chairman of the U.S. Citrus Science Council and a lemon grower in Ventura County, also worries about pests or diseases hitching a ride into Southern California on imported fruit.

“Today my production costs are increasing as I battle a number of introduced pests in order to provide a quality product for American consumers,” Pidduck said. “As my costs rise for invasive pests and disease, most notably the Asian citrus psyllid and huanglongbing, I am being asked to accept more vulnerability.”

The new rule takes effect in 30 days, but it could take even longer before the first Argentine lemons arrive in the U.S.

The USDA and Argentina’s plant inspection and health agency have to work up an operational plan detailing the conditions for every shipment of lemons to the U.S., and the USDA must verify six months of fruit fly-trapping data.

“APHIS will also have to verify that packinghouses have met the safeguarding requirements outlined in the operational work plan,” the agency said.

Nelsen said he is hopeful for more success in reversing or modifying the rule once President-elect Donald Trump takes office in January and a new agriculture secretary is in place.

“We’ve had no talks with the transition team on this, but I’ve already had conversations with some of our elected representatives today and I hope that when Congress reconvenes they can revisit the existing rules,” he said Tuesday.

Nelsen and Pidduck said they have accepted import rules for other countries. “But when it comes to bringing fruit in from pest- and disease-infected areas, that’s tough,” Nelsen said. “We want to set up some very strong standards that would protect our industry’s ability to continue to farm in an economically and environmentally sensitive manner.”