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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Citrus Growers Talk of Ruinous Orange Season

Farming: Many attending meeting say they will not show a profit from a late Valencia crop that forced down prices.

August 30, 2000|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Facing slumping sales and plummeting prices, Ventura County citrus growers gathered Tuesday to discuss ways to boost the value of the region's foundering Valencia orange crop, which appears headed for its worst season in decades.

In a meeting sponsored by Sunkist Growers, nearly 200 farmers jammed into the Santa Paula Community Center, swapping stories about harvests that for many this year will be worth next to nothing because the market got off to a late start and now is flooded with fruit.

Fillmore grower Jim Steinberg is among them.

Last year, he earned more than $5 per box of Valencia oranges. This year his best oranges are getting $1.50 a box, and much of his fruit isn't seeing any return at all.

"I will end up giving a lot of it away to charity," said Steinberg, who has farmed in Fillmore for 28 years.

"We are in deep trouble in this industry," he added. "I think a lot of the problem is with the retailers. If they would share a little bit, then everything wouldn't be so lopsided."

Similar losses are being racked up by orange growers industrywide.

Earlier this year, a flood of navel oranges caused prices to fall and prompted several growers to give away their fruit to local charities. Navel oranges also had a hand in devaluing the Valencia orange crop.

Because the navel season went several weeks longer than usual, it pushed back until mid-August the time that Valencia oranges went on the market.

A shorter season resulted in an oversupply. That, combined with increased foreign competition, produced lower prices and could mean huge losses for a crop valued last year in Ventura County at $71 million.

"It has been a dismal season," said Alan Laird, a deputy agricultural commissioner for the county. "I imagine we'll have a lot of people not wanting to continue in the Valencia business and going to something like row crops instead."

It's too early, however, to count out Valencias altogether.

Sunkist President Vince Lupinacci told growers that the Sherman Oaks-based citrus cooperative is looking for ways to boost the value of Valencia and navel oranges.

Ideas range from developing new packaging to launching new marketing strategies, such as distribution in convenience stores and health clubs.

"We are looking at every possible avenue we can to drive higher value," Lupinacci assured the growers. "We are going to do everything we can to drive market consumption."

Ojai Valley citrus rancher Bob Davis said he believes this season already is lost for most growers. The important thing now, he said, is to find ways to shield growers from future problems.

"What we really have this year is a large family sitting at the table and not enough to feed any of us," said Davis, adding that he can't recall a worse season for Valencias in the more than three decades he's been farming.

"I think Sunkist is probably doing as much as it can to hold an umbrella over the industry," he said. "My concern now is what are we going to do next year and the year after to try to prevent this sort of thing."

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