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Panels ponder future viability of California citrus industry

by Rand Green | March 11, 2009
VISALIA, CA -- A cartoon illustration of a frog reclining luxuriously in a pot of boiling water graced the program cover for the California Citrus Mutual 2009 Citrus Showcase, along with the words, "Are we cooked yet?"

Printed inside the program booklet for the March 5 event was a welcoming message from CCM President Joel Nelsen summarizing the themes to be discussed at various workshop sessions during the day. The cover art, he said, "certainly seems fitting this year as [the] industry battles forces affecting our collective efforts to provide a bountiful crop of citrus" to consumers around the world.

"Are we cooked and don't know it?" Mr. Nelsen asked.

"Alleged global warming, alleged climate change, economic dynamics within the structure of our industry and the steady march of the Asian citrus psyllid," a potential carrier of the Huanglongbing disease that has wreaked havoc with the Florida citrus industry, "would seemingly indicate a boiling pot," he said. Water politics is another issue of concern.

Morning sessions dealt with water issues and climate change issues as they affect the California citrus industry. A luncheon panel discussed efforts by U.S. and Mexican government agencies in cooperation with the industry to monitor the psyllid, now present in the Tijuana-San Diego area, and to control or eradicate it before the dreaded Huanglongbing bacteria makes its appearance.

"We're ahead of this curve, and we can stay ahead of it," said Ted Batkin, president of the Citrus Research Board.

An afternoon panel focused on several critical issues within the industry. Among them was a concern that with citrus demand apparently static, overproduction could easily lead to unprofitable market prices.

"Luckily for us, we have a little less of a crop this year, so it is a little bit more matched to the current demand situation," said David Krause, president of Paramount Citrus Association.

On the other hand, when crops are larger and prices are lower, it is "a lot easier for people to be able to promote" the commodity, noted Jim Marderosian, president of Bee Sweet Citrus.

"I would rather sell less for more," said Bruce Wileman, president of Porterville Citrus Inc. "I don't like to sell [oranges] for cheap prices just to move fruit."

The California Citrus Growers Association has the ability to eliminate certain smaller sizes in large-crop years, said Mr. Krause. "The challenge is that with [only] 70 percent of the industry" participating in CCGA, "the other 30 percent can supply the market its entire needs" of the eliminated sizes.

"The economy has had an impact on our movement this year," said Kevin Fiori, vice president of sales and marketing for Sunkist Growers. "But more important is that we make sure that we maximize returns on the crop that we have to work with."

Another topic of discussion was a concern that the increasing popularity of clementines could eat into Navel sales rather than boosting total citrus consumption.

Mr. Krause, whose company has extensive clementine plantings, said that unfortunately, the anticipated growth in consumption has not been evident to date.

"It is much more of a steal factor," he said, "but the consumer makes the choice."