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Ventura County

Avocado Farmers Fear Increase in Imports

Agriculture: Growers say expanding Mexican inroads into the U.S. market could unleash pests on groves and cost millions in sales.

July 17, 2001|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County avocado growers are preparing to battle a federal proposal to step up importation of Mexican avocados, saying the move will hurt sales and could unleash crop-destroying pests on the domestic market.

Mexico already is allowed to ship avocados between November and February to 19 states in the Northeast.

Now Mexican growers, backed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, want to tack on two months and 12 states, allowing their avocados to be sold as late as April and as far west as Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.

The plan doesn't sit well with many Ventura County growers, who say their bottom-line interests are being sacrificed in the name of bettering trade relations south of the border.

"It will do nothing but harm the California avocado industry," said veteran farmer Link Leavens, who manages 700 acres of lemons and avocados around Ventura, Santa Paula and Moorpark. "We're a small industry, and we're going to get hit right between the eyes."

The USDA last week published the proposal in the federal register, kicking off a 60-day comment period.

Agency spokeswoman Kimberley Smith said the USDA has studied the economic impact and safety risks involved in expanding the importation program, which is allowed under trade agreements between the two countries.

The economic study concluded that California growers, who this year project to generate $300 million, stand to lose more than $17 million a year if the plan is approved.

Smith, however, said the department's primary concern is whether the proposal poses a pest and disease risk to the domestic industry. An in-depth assessment concluded that there would be minimal threat to California's groves, she said.

"We focus on the science-based risks," she said. "The whole goal of our agency is to safeguard American agriculture."

California avocado growers say the federal government isn't focusing hard enough.

Since 1997, when Mexico was first allowed to export avocados to the United States, 2,100 weevils and 700 fruit flies have been trapped in the groves of areas in Mexico approved for such shipments, according to the California Avocado Commission. Those numbers represent an undercount because of flaws in the pest-detection program, commission officials said.

Moreover, current fruit-cutting techniques for Mexican avocados cannot detect eggs or the early larval states of the fruit fly, the commission said.

That's a critical deficiency when it comes to the expanded importation program, officials say. The current program was designed to allow shipments into the Northeast only during the winter months, because cold weather would kill any bugs that happened to hitch a ride.

Under the expansion proposal, shipments would be able to go to states with warmer climates, where pests might better be able to establish a foothold. And fruit could be shipped as late as April 30, meaning Mexican avocados could stay in the system well into the summer months, further increasing infestation risks.

Pest Outbreak Could Cost $500 Million

If California groves were infested, it could cost more than $500 million to control an outbreak and lead to import restrictions against California produce, resulting in statewide job and monetary losses, commission officials said.

For all of those reasons, the avocado commission on behalf of the state's 6,000 growers is gearing up to do everything possible to sink the proposal.

"As the program grows, as you get more and more orchards lined up to be certified in Mexico, it increases the possibility of something going wrong," said commission Vice President Tom Bellamore. He noted the economic devastation that occurred when a 1994 quarantine was imposed on crops around Camarillo after fruit fly infestation.

"We've seen the state grapple with exotic pests, where a very real risk has been presented to agriculture and millions of dollars have been lost," he added. "We'd much prefer to be in the business of selling fruit and not worry about such things."

Not everyone is up in arms over the proposal.

At the Mission Produce packinghouse in Oxnard, where each week up to 2 million pounds of avocados rumble down the assembly line, President Steve Barnard doesn't buy into any of the doomsday scenarios.

Since Mexico began shipping avocados to the United States, Barnard said, Mission's volume to those states in the program more than doubled.

Other California producers have benefited as well.

And all of that occurred without any harm to the state's avocado groves, he said.

"It has been good for California growers, it's been good for Mexican growers, and it's been good for consumers," Barnard said. "If [the USDA] controls it as they have in phase one, I don't think there will be a problem."

Under the expansion proposal, consumers could benefit from a projected 12% drop in the wholesale price of avocados, according to a USDA study.

Savings May Not Be Passed On to Customer

Santa Paula grower Bob Pinkerton, who doubles as president of the Ventura County Farm Bureau, said there's no guarantee that shoppers will see those savings, noting that supermarket consolidations have all but eliminated the practice of competitive pricing.

The USDA also proposed creating a national avocado board to conduct industry research and find ways to promote the fruit, in the name of boosting consumption.

But Pinkerton said none of that will do any good if the domestic market is plagued with pests. That, more than anything, is why he's uneasy about throwing open more of the domestic market to Mexican growers.

"I'm all for free world trade," he said, "but let's just make sure we do it on a reasonable basis."

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