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Japan Rules Out Countywide Crop Embargo : Medfly: The quarantine zone is seen as a sufficient safeguard. Even without a blanket ban on local fruit, officials say the infestation will be costly.

October 22, 1994|JULIE FIELDS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To the immense relief of Ventura County's agricultural community, officials announced Friday that Japan has decided not to impose a countywide embargo on locally grown citrus, avocados and other crops because of the Medfly infestation in Camarillo.

The Japanese government has decided that the 86-square-mile quarantine area imposed by state, federal and county officials after the infestation was discovered is a sufficient safeguard for keeping the pest out of Japan, Agricultural Commissioner Earl McPhail announced.

Before Friday's announcement, growers had feared that Japan might decide to impose a countywide, or even statewide, embargo instead of accepting the current quarantine area. Japan annually imports about $200 million worth of Ventura County's produce.

"I'm very, very pleased that the Japanese have thought enough of our quarantine and methods of eradication to take our fruit," said Randy Axell, a Santa Paula farmer with 100 acres of oranges, lemons and avocados.

"If they hadn't purchased fruit from our county, it would have devastated the lemon economy."

Even without a blanket ban by the Japanese, agricultural officials said the the 3-week-old Mediterranean fruit fly infestation will still prove costly for Ventura County.

Farmers inside the 86-square-mile quarantine zone--which includes some of the region's most fertile cropland--could lose up to $50 million if forced to sell their produce domestically, McPhail said. Produce typically commands much higher prices in the Asian markets than at home.

Also, agricultural officials warned that the specter of a countywide Japanese ban still looms if the crop-eating flies are trapped outside the quarantine's center. So far, 63 Medflies have been trapped, all but one within a one-square-mile area of the original site east of Camarillo.

"We've been in a sprint the last 2 1/2 weeks, but the eradication effort is really a marathon and we've got a long way to go," said Rex Laird, executive director of the Ventura County Farm Bureau. "Any indication to Japan we've lost control of it and this whole thing could be set aside."

A visit to Ventura County by members of Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries proved to be a critical factor in the decision not to ban all of the county's produce, McPhail said.

As part of the fact-finding mission last week, the three-member delegation toured the infestation area and flew in a helicopter as a trio of other choppers sprayed malathion and corn syrup over Camarillo.

McPhail said the Japanese were impressed with the quickness of the state's decision to move forward with aerial spraying and were reassured by the isolation of the infestation area.

During daytime flyovers of western Ventura County, the Japanese delegation was able to see that South Mountain provides a natural barrier between the quarantine zone and the rich farmland in the Santa Clara River valley.

"It all showed them we care very deeply about this situation and we all want to get it eradicated as soon as we can," he said.

To ensure that the infestation does not spread, county officials plan to hang additional traps this week in a one-mile belt outside the core area at St. John's Seminary.

Already, about 1,200 traps are scattered throughout the quarantine area. But no Medflies have been found since Oct. 6, said Doug Hendrix, spokesman for the state and federal Cooperative Medfly Project.

If Japan had banned all host products grown in Ventura County, the agricultural industry would have lost more than the $200 million in Japanese exports, McPhail said. Boycotts by other foreign nations could have cost the county another $100 million, he said.

Laird added that the county's major crops would have flooded the domestic market, causing prices to plunge.

"We'd have lost our shirt," he said.

William Quarles, vice president of the citrus cooperative Sunkist Growers, said a total ban on Ventura County would have resulted in a 30% oversupply to the domestic citrus market.

"That is just enough to submerge the market," he said.

As it stands now, growers and shippers say they will try to minimize the impact by sending pesticide-treated fruit in the quarantine zone to domestic markets and filling Japanese orders with crops grown elsewhere.

Industry officials also hope other countries will follow Japan's lead in accepting produce from the rest of the county.

Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand--Ventura County's biggest foreign markets after Japan-- currently have restrictions banning the import of fruit grown within 30- to 50-miles of a quarantine perimeter.

"I would expect the other markets in the Pacific Rim to follow Japan's lead," Quarles said.

Growers in the Camarillo area said they hope the quarantine will be lifted before the last spring and summer months, when the bulk of the citrus is shipped overseas.

"With any luck and a little good weather . . . we could have an average year," said Don Reeder, operations supervisor of Pro-Ag Inc., which manages 2,000 acres of farmland, half of which is inside the restricted area.

Medlfy Quarantine nd Eradication Areas

Ventura County's agricultural officials announced Friday that Japan will not place a countywide embargo on citrus, avocados and other produce considered a host to the Medfly. The Japanese government will ban only crops grown with the 86-square-mile quarantine zone. Source: State Department of Food and Agriculture

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