Ventura County citrus growers won a reprieve Monday when the U.S. Department of Agriculture delayed plans to import Argentine lemons until that nation proves it has eradicated crop-destroying infestations.
The delay came after a strong congressional lobbying push by state citrus growers who said that without rigid sanitary standards, imports of Argentine lemons could bring Medflies and diseases such as canker and black spot.
"We do need time to assess [Argentina's] problems and to see whether the USDA's regulations go far enough," said grower Bob Pinkerton, who sits on the Saticoy Lemon Board. "It's good news and something that we need to make sure is safe."
With more than 20,000 acres under cultivation, lemons are Ventura County's most profitable agricultural commodity, earning more than $217 million in 1997. Last year the county accounted for 60% of lemon sales in California.
The agriculture department's decision to delay imports from Argentina came after U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) demanded that domestic growers be assured that Argentine lemons are free from any pests that could damage the nation's citrus crop.
"We must make sure that we protect the California citrus industry from . . . pests and diseases," Sherman said in a written statement. "If we cannot be convinced that under appropriate regulations the importation of Argentine citrus is safe, we must prevent its importation."
In addition, growers said the delay will give them time to establish concrete agreements with the Argentines on how to accommodate domestic and Argentine growers without resorting to a costly price war.
A team of scientists and industry experts from the Santa Paula-based U.S. Citrus Science Council is scheduled to visit Argentina's Tucuman province--the heart of that country's citrus industry--to assess its efforts at meeting U.S. sanitary concerns.
The USDA has also scheduled a public hearing Dec. 17 at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza to hear concerns of growers who may soon face their stiffest competition yet.
In addition, officials at Sunkist, which markets citrus for more than 6,500 growers nationwide, are exploring ways at striking a balanced agreement between Argentine and U.S. growers to avert a market glut that could drive lemon prices to basement levels.
Sunkist officials said earlier they will do "anything and everything" necessary to protect their lemon markets, including bringing Argentine growers under their cooperative umbrella.
But officials said they will hold off taking any steps until the science review is complete.
"Once everyone knows what direction this is going, I'm sure we'll have a better idea of what we're going to do," said Sunkist spokeswoman Claire Peters. "It's just too preliminary right now, but we are pleased with the delay. . . . It will give us more time to review the situation."
Growers, however, believe that Argentine exports are inevitable and encourage any efforts to protect their economic concerns when faced with Argentina's burgeoning industry.
"Their primary export markets are the same as ours, so it makes sense to have some sort of marketing allegiance," Pinkerton said. "But it's still too early to say how that will turn out. . . . We'll have to wait until all the analysis is done and whether they can even begin exporting."
Though Argentina has had a history of serious infestations that could wreak havoc on local citrus crops, the sheer size of its lemon and citrus industry is reason enough for concern, local growers say.
Because of lower wages, lower equipment costs, fewer government restrictions and less need for costly irrigation systems, production costs in Argentina run about one-fourth to one-third as much as they do in the United States.
Like Ventura County, the Tucuman province enjoys a climate that allows growers to cultivate and harvest lemons year-round.
Consequently, Argentina's production levels have increased dramatically in recent years, and the nation is poised to topple Ventura County from its perch as the world's top lemon producer.
"These aren't just little farms. . . . They're large, well-run operations," said Alan Laird, deputy agricultural commissioner for Ventura County. "They are set up for serious business and are looking to break into markets that have traditionally been ours."
Though no one is sure how Argentina's entry into the market will affect local growers, most say the impact will be substantial.
"They're set up for serious business, and we're certainly not saying that we want to keep them out of the market," Pinkerton said. "We just want to be sure that their exports are safe."