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Central Valley Grape Growers Ask for Federal Aid Amid Glut

Proposals sent to USDA ask government to buy 20,000 tons of raisins, pay producers to pull out vines.

October 30, 2002|Melinda Fulmer | Times Staff Writer

Grape growers in the San Joaquin Valley, conceding they cannot help themselves out from under a largely self-created glut, are asking the federal government for financial help.

The growers and local political leaders discussed possible solutions at a one-day grape meeting in Fresno on Tuesday. Among them was a set of proposals sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that asks the government to buy 20,000 tons of raisins for federal school lunch plans and international aid programs, to pay growers to pull out their vines, and to hold raisins off the market for a season.

"Grape and raisin production is critical to the economic well-being of the [Central] Valley," said Rep. George P. Radanovich (R-Mariposa). "If the situation is not addressed, the economy of the Valley and the state of California will suffer."

The industry says it needs some sort of bailout, since cash reserves of raisin cooperatives have been strained by growers' inability to raise prices during the last two years and by payouts to some farmers to help them switch to other crops.

Wine grape growers contend they have been battered by government-supported imports, which have depressed demand and forced down prices for their grapes.

Prices have fallen so low for San Joaquin Valley growers that despite supplying more than half of the grapes crushed for wine in California, producers get just 17% of all revenue. California grapes are a $2.8-billion industry.

"We are not asking for any price supports, but we need to get some of these grapes pulled out so we can make more money," said Nat DiBuduo of Allied Grape Growers, a marketing cooperative that represents 500 growers.

Not all in the industry agree that a government bailout is the answer.

"Not everyone's on board," said Madera raisin grower Dave Loquaci, speaking by phone from the conference. "There's a lot of different ideas out there of what we need to do to help ourselves."

Rep. Radanovich also has asked U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman to convene a special USDA panel to address the problems in the state's grape and raisin industries. USDA officials said they would review the proposals but would not comment further.

Since 1993, more than 265,000 acres of wine and table grapes have been planted throughout the state, doubling their production.

Hardest hit are growers of Thompson seedless grapes, who lost a lucrative secondary market for their grapes as wine grape acreage surged. More grapes were pushed into raisin production, worsening the glut, which has left last year's raisins piling up in warehouses across the Central Valley.

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