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Ventura County

Avocados May Get National Ad Campaign

Agriculture: Growers will vote in summer on whether to assess a fee for research and promotion. The levy could raise up to $14 million a year.

April 15, 2002|FRED ALVAREZ | hed/deck and added one line

Ventura County avocado growers are preparing to take part this summer in a nationwide vote on a promotional drive that could do for their industry what the "Got milk?" campaign has done for dairy farmers.

More than 6,000 growers and importers will be eligible to decide whether to tax themselves to create a national board responsible for carving out new markets and boosting consumption of the pear-shaped fruit.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture published rules for the referendum last week in the Federal Register.

"We've got a good product, and we want to do what we can to increase demand," said Roger Essick, who farms 200 acres of avocados in Ojai and Fillmore and serves on the board of directors of the California Avocado Commission.

"If we can get people in the rest of the country eating avocados like they do out West, I think it will be money well spent," Essick said.

Although the Avocado Commission and grower groups have long been involved in a variety of promotional campaigns, the federal program seeks to broaden those efforts.

Supporters of the 21/2-cents- per-pound assessment say that California growers--who produce 90% of the U.S. crop--have paid most of the costs for market research and promotion.

But as avocado imports have increased, particularly from countries such as Mexico and Chile, California growers have searched for ways to ensure that foreign growers pay a share of those costs.

The California Avocado Commission pushed legislation, adopted last year, requiring the USDA to put the issue to a vote.

"We know there is going to come a time when the only way for everyone to be successful in the market is to build demand in the United States," said commission Vice President Tom Bellamore, who estimates the assessment could generate more than $14 million a year for research and promotional efforts.

"Here in California, we eat a lot of avocados," he added, "but there are other parts of the country where there is still much work to be done."

Similar programs have been successful in building demand.

The USDA oversees a dozen national boards for everything from mushrooms to watermelon, in which producers agree to tax themselves to pay for research and promotion.

Cattlemen pay $1 a head to fund a variety of promotional activities, including the national advertising campaign that generated the slogan, "Beef, it's what for dinner."

Milk producers pay 15 cents per hundredweight for similar efforts, and in 1993 hit the mother lode with their successful "Got milk?" campaign.

The effort was said to have boosted sales and consumption.

Avocado growers don't know if they can hit it quite as big. But many across California are willing to give it a try.

"I don't think we'll generate as much money to do what milk and beef have done, but we will be able to break into new markets across the nation," said Jerome Stehly, a second-generation avocado farmer in northern San Diego County.

"But in order to do that, we need more money to advertise and we need [importers] to pay their fair share," Stehly said.

The vote will take place from June 24 to July 12. If a majority of those who take part in the balloting support the program, the USDA will assemble a national board to set policy for the research and promotional efforts.

"I'm a strong 'yes' vote, and I think you'll find that kind of support throughout the industry," Santa Paula rancher Richard Pidduck said.

"I don't think the Avocado Commission would have gotten this far if [the program] didn't have broad industry support," Pidduck said.

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