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Blossoming Market

Oranges Bound for China; Growers Hope for Windfall


SANTA PAULA — Forklift driver Fernando Zapata shifted one pallet after another of premium Valencia oranges from the belly of a Santa Paula packinghouse to a 45-foot trailer, destined for the Port of Long Beach and a slow boat to China.

Ever since the Chinese government opened its market last year to U.S. citrus, Ventura County growers have waited to take part in the potential windfall--estimated at $500 million nationwide over the next five years.

That wait ended Friday at the Santa Paula Orange Assn., where workers packed up and shipped out 23 tons of Ojai oranges to the Chinese port of Guangzhou.

"Of course we're excited--there's big potential in that market," said plant manager Maurice Meza, supervising the loading operation. "Everybody is looking at it from the standpoint of being able to do more business by expanding into China, and I think eventually everyone will get their share."

As trade barriers fall, local growers stand ready to reap the benefits of exporting produce to the world's most populous nation--a major first step toward cementing U.S.-China trade relations.

Ventura County lemon growers say access to China's 1.2 billion consumers can only bolster local production--already tops among U.S. counties. And orange growers are counting on the new market to revive an industry in which prices and demand have long been stagnant.

"The orange business has been awful," Ventura citrus rancher Paul Leavens said. "But I think now we can probably salvage the orange business and continue to strengthen our standing in the lemon industry."

For orange growers like Leavens, the most immediate benefit will come from increased demand for fresh fruit. Because of limited demand, many growers have been able to immediately market only a fraction of what they produce. They are then forced to peddle the rest as juice or oil at far cheaper prices.

Leavens said the key now is to convince lawmakers in Washington to grant China permanent normal trade status, a step necessary to enable U.S. businesses to take full advantage of the agreement negotiated last year to open Chinese markets.

With a crucial vote on the issue scheduled for later this month, Leavens said he will travel to Washington next week to testify before Congress and lobby Ventura County's legislative delegation.

"I feel very strongly that we need this outlet for our fruit," Leavens said. "We need to continue the momentum or this whole thing could collapse."

Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), who voted against granting China normal trade relations each of the last two years, could not be reached Friday for comment. But he has expressed concern about the impact of high Chinese tariffs on the U.S. trade deficit and about China's record on civil rights.

While lawmakers battle it out in Washington, California growers are particularly eager to explore the fertile Chinese market for oranges, lemons and other citrus.

The inaugural China-bound shipment of 1,080 cartons--originating in Tulare County--left Long Beach on March 24 and reached the port Dailan on April 17. It marked the first time that growers had been able to ship to China since 1980, when California fruit was quarantined because of Mediterranean fruit fly infestations.

Other orders--from Riverside County and the Central Valley--have gone to China since then.

Sunkist Growers, a Van Nuys-based citrus cooperative, estimates the trade deal could generate as much as $100 million in additional sales for California growers in just the first year.

"It's a huge potential market," Sunkist spokeswoman Claire Peters said. "Just to Hong Kong in 1998, Sunkist alone had over $82 million in sales. Add mainland China to that and you're looking at a significant potential increase."

Santa Paula citrus rancher Richard Pidduck bristles at such talk. He said the trade agreement will do little good unless Congress normalizes relations with China and growers develop a marketing plan to funnel their fruit into that country.

"It's really going to depend on how well we run our business," he said. "Nothing is going to fall in our laps as a result of this."

The Santa Paula shipment was set to be loaded onto a freighter Friday night and begin its 20-day journey to China today.

With the forklift rumbling and workers scrambling, truck driver Tony Sacre waited patiently for the cartons to be loaded so that he could drive them to Long Beach.

"I think it's great; hopefully it will help growers move their produce," Sacre said. "Obviously there are a lot of people in China. If everybody ate just one orange, that would be great for business."

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