Pending Citrus Import Deal Troubles Ventura Lemon Growers


Ventura County lemon growers are bracing for bad news from federal regulators who are expected to issue a decision any day on whether to allow the importation of Argentine lemons, a decision that could cut into the market for the region’s No. 1 cash crop.

But farmers say it is more than an economic issue. They say federal regulators are preparing to allow citrus to come into this country without it first going through rigorous testing for pests that could disease their own groves, causing millions of dollars in losses.

And they charge that the U.S Department of Agriculture is keeping its preliminary decision secret to fend off criticism.

“If it was a good agreement you would have gotten an advance copy of it,” said Bob Pinkerton, president of the Ventura County Farm Bureau.

Officials from the Department of Agriculture could not be reached for comment.


But in a 1998 report, the department concluded that the proposed imports would largely compete with existing imports rather than domestic production. Federal regulators also found that there are sufficient inspections and controls to keep diseased fruit from reaching local groves.

For instance, detection of disease on lemons would result in removal of the grove from the import program for the duration of the growing season, says the report, which was prepared as the Agriculture Department was considering the importation decision.

But local growers aren’t satisfied. They say they don’t have the technology to fight infestations that might get past inspectors. They contend the USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service hasn’t fully examined what they see as flaws in Argentina’s crop control methods.

As a result, growers in Florida spent millions of dollars curing crops of citrus canker, a disease common in Argentine crops, said grower Richard Pidduck, past president of the Ventura County Farm Bureau.

“They’re facing removal of entire groves to try to eradicate it,” Pidduck said.

The threat is particularly significant to Ventura County growers, who netted more than $178 million in 1998 from lemons--making it the top cash crop--and produced 60% of the lemons in the state.

Ventura County Agriculture Commissioner Earl McPhail was unavailable for comment. Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), who spoke on behalf of growers at federal hearings on the issue last year, is sympathetic to local growers’ concerns, said Gallegly spokesman Tom Pfeifer.

“One infected tree could destroy a whole orchard,” he said. “This is very serious. Gallegly is concerned and is aware of [the possible ruling] and is working on it.”

An advocacy group for citrus growers said that federal officials have refused to provide a copy of their preliminary decision that was sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget, despite requests from Gov. Gray Davis’ office.

“Collectively, we’re being stonewalled,” said Joel Nelsen, co-chairman of the U.S. Citrus Science Council.

Fruit importation could begin as early as next month if the Office of Management and Budget approves the USDA’s decision, Pinkerton said.

At a hearing in Thousand Oaks a year ago, 700 farmers, laborers and industry supporters urged federal officials to reconsider the scientific analysis used by the Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service.

They proposed a new system with more rigorous testing to reduce the risk of importing pests and diseases such as black spot, citrus canker and the medfly.

“The problem is our borders are rather porous to these types of infestations,” Pidduck said. “And to bring materials in that we know have problems just flies in the face of common sense.”