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The Politics of Lemons : A Group of Growers' Representatives Set Weekly Shipping Quotas. In Effect, They Control Price.

August 24, 1989|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

The summer's lemon harvest is drawing to a close throughout Ventura County, the nation's leading production area, as skeleton crews comb the orchards for the season's few remaining ripe fruits.

Growers in towns such as Saticoy and Santa Paula are left to congratulate themselves on one of the most successful years of the past decade. The demand for fresh lemons is high and prices have approached record levels.

With little disruption, the harvest will now move into the desert groves of California's Coachella Valley and Arizona's Yuma County. There, farm workers will continue to pick fruit for much of the fall.

Lemons are readily available throughout the year because of just such varied plantings, each located in different climatic regions. Other prime growing areas still waiting to produce in the 1989-1990 growing season include the San Joaquin Valley and San Diego County.

Yet, an important factor in the well-being of the lemon crop results from committee meetings that regularly take place far from the widely dispersed orchards.

Each Tuesday morning, a number of growers and processors gather to discuss the lemon industry's fate in a most unlikely place:the ninth floor of a dingy office building in downtown Los Angeles' fashion district.

There, in a smoke-filled conference room, the Lemon Administrative Committee meets to determine how much of the crop will enter U.S. markets the following week.

The group, which is sanctioned under the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937, has jurisdiction over all lemons grown in California and Arizona, or about 97% of the U.S. total. (The remaining fraction is raised in Florida, which operates free of the Los Angeles-based committee.)

Granted, lemons are far from a dietary staple and are not consumed in the same manner as most other fruits. They are used, instead, as a garnish, flavoring agent or baking ingredient. As a result, how a labyrinth of regulations governs the crop probably has mattered little to the public in the past.

But lemons have shared in the growing interest in all fresh produce. And not only have consumers' lemon purchases risen as a result, but so have those by the restaurant and institutional food-service industries.

In an annual report filed last month with Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yeutter, the Lemon Administration Committee defined its mission.

"An area where the lemon grower can exert influence in the distribution and sales system is that portion of the crop reaching the domestic market. He can . . . make sure that domestic shipments do not reach a level that will cause fire-sale pricing and that places so much fruit on the domestic market that the normal flow of harvesting and packing is interrupted," the report states. "It is in the growers' interest that such interruptions do not happen and it is the goal of the Lemon Administrative Committee to see that they do not happen."

At first glance, the prospect of stable supplies and prices would appear welcome in a grower community too often beset by boom or bust cycles. But the committee has some harsh critics.

"This system is a disservice to the consumer," said Skip Pescosolido, co-owner of Sequoia Orange Co. in Exeter, Calif., who favors deregulation of the lemon industry. "At least 100,000 cartons of lemons that could be sold are prevented from reaching the market each year. That is a disservice."

Even so, little is heard about the committee that determines the fate of an estimated $210-million lemon crop.

Although its meetings are open to the public, the committee works in anonymity, making decisions that affect 60,000 acres of lemon orchards. It's one of the few agricultural groups that uses its authority under the federal marketing order to, in essence, centrally plan a food commodity. (Navel and Valencia oranges are the only other crops with similar provisions in their grower-voted charters.)

Few people in or out of the lemon business fully understand the committee's complex inner workings and jargon. A number of produce industry representatives declined to even comment on the committee's work because of its intricacies. Thus the "politics of lemons" are left to some of the industry's major players.

Foremost among these is Sunkist Growers Inc., a Sherman Oaks-based cooperative whose membership represents about 65% of all lemons grown in California and Arizona. In 1988, the co-op reported about $140 million from the sale of fresh lemons, both in the domestic and export markets, as well as those diverted to other industrial uses.

Individual growers are each empowered to elect representatives to the administrative committee under the marketing order that established the group. However, the seats are apportioned so that Sunkist controls six, while an equal number are allotted to independent growers and packers.

The final member, the chairman, says he does not vote when the two sides are evenly split. Thus, six votes are enough to control the committee's agenda.

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