Local Growers Leery of Year-Round Fruit

— In late June, officials from the United States Department of Agriculture lifted a ban on picking Hass avocados that had been imposed on growers in Valley Center since Mexican fruit flies were found in the area last December. Testing done in the interim had revealed no evidence that the fruit flies, usually associated with citrus, were affecting the avocados. North County farmers were elated to be able to harvest their avocados, which were beginning to fall to the ground. Growers, under the new agreement, must first remove and dispose of all fallen fruit in their orchards. At the packing houses, 100 avocados from every load are cut open and inspected for evidence of "Mexfly" larvae.

Though the lifting of the picking ban was good news in the short term for local avocado farmers, some in the industry worry that it will hurt them in the long term by opening the door for avocados grown in Mexico to be imported into California.

Since November 2001, avocados grown in the state of Michoacán in central Mexico are imported into 31 states -- California and its neighbors not among them -- during the colder half of the year. Between 1997 and 2001, it was 19 northeastern states during winter months. "That was the first time since, I think, 1917 that Mexico was allowed to export avocados into the United States," says Bob Bednar, who has grown avocados on 20 acres in Valley Center since 1973. "Between 1917 and 1997, there was a restriction placed on them because of the seed weevil and the stem borer."

The seed weevil and the stem borer are pests that can affect avocados. "You can't even spray for them because they are internal," Bednar says, "and they just destroy the fruit."

"We don't even have seed weevil up here," says Jerome Stehly, president of the California Avocado Commission. "That is why we have been trying to keep them out; we don't want it up here. And the seed weevil drills into the fruit and then drills into the seed of the fruit, and that rots it from the inside out. You can't tell until the consumer cuts it open. That is a bad pest. I don't want that thing in my fruit."

"After NAFTA," Bednar continues, "the USDA came up with what they call a redundant process -- there are about seven different processes that they go through -- that should find insects if they are there. And by doing that, and they don't find any insects, then they should be safe for importation. But they restricted it to 19 Northeastern states, where you would have a freeze. So if any of these insects came into the United States, they could not winter over. And since that time, Mexico has been fighting to get the rest of the states. This past year -- I think in last October it started -- they were allowed to bring them into 31 states from October until April 15. These are all non-Sun Belt states."

Along with the stem borer and seed weevil, the Mexican fruit fly was another pest believed by the USDA to affect the Hass avocado. As such it was another barrier against the importation of Mexican avocados into California, where more than 99 percent of United States avocados are grown. (And about 46 percent of California's avocados are grown in San Diego County.) But no evidence was found of Mexican fruit flies infesting avocados in the 150-square-mile North County quarantine area where Mexican fruit flies were found last fall. Thus, another barrier to importation from Mexico was removed. And in June of this year, concurrent with the lifting of the picking ban, the USDA published a 92-page "risk analysis" titled The Importation of the Hass Avocado Fruit from Mexico. The paper opens, "This risk assessment responds to a request to remove certain restrictions on the importation of Hass avocados from Mexico; its purpose is thus to analyze the risks of expanding the existing Mexican Hass avocado-import program to authorize imports of Mexican Hass avocados to all states during the entire year."

The report goes on to advocate year-round importation of avocados from Michoacán to all 50 states.

"In that risk assessment," says Stehly, who manages 1400 acres of avocado groves in North County, "they say that in certain circumstances the Hass avocado can be a host, but that they have a new systems approach that can stop it, meaning they have redundant systems in place that will prevent any infected fruit from reaching growing areas or getting out of control."

Asked how much confidence the Department of Agriculture's pest-screening systems give him, Stehly answers, "Not very much. They had the same systems approach with the Spanish clementine tangerines and the Mediterranean fruit fly. But it came into the United States and got spread all over the country. I'm not convinced with the whole systems approach. With the Spanish clementines, they only shut them down for half a season and then they let them back in. And all they did, with no testing, was lower the temperature in the cooling as a way of saying that that would kill the medfly. And they did not test it; no testing. And then they opened the doors back up for them. And they actually reduced the number of USDA people in Spain checking on the growth to make sure that they were medfly-free. But, you see, it's bigger than just agriculture. Where's our biggest air base in that region? It's in Spain. Who supported us in the Iraqi War? Spain."

Both Stehly and Bednar believe that, due to political momentum, Mexican avocados will eventually be imported to all 50 states. "They're coming," Bednar says. "They've been fighting to get their fruit into the whole United States since the early 1990s."

"After one of the recent meetings between President Fox and President Bush," Stehly adds, "when a reporter asked an aide what they had talked about, he answered, 'Well, they talked about avocados.' Of all the fruits and vegetable commodities there are, they talked about avocados. The deal was made."

Asked if it's pests or market devaluation that worries local growers, Bednar answers, "[Importation of Mexican avocados] will devalue the market, but my big thing, and I have been in the industry for a long time, has always been the protection of our groves from insects. In recent years, we have had a lot of new Mexican insects that have come up. We have got avocado thrips and persea mite -- which we didn't have five or six years ago -- and it costs us money because we have to spray because those insects damage our fruit."

Stehly insists his opposition to Mexican avocados in California is not economic protectionism. "You have to remember that we have no restrictions against Chile, and Chile has continued to grow their market. They are going to bring over 200 million pounds into our market this next year. And at no time have we ever tried to stop them from coming up here because they are pest-free."

Stehly says the avocado commission will do everything short of a lawsuit to fight against the Department of Agriculture allowing Mexican avocados into California. But even if all restrictions against the importation of Mexican avocados were lifted tomorrow, he believes the economic effect wouldn't be felt soon, and, because of market changes, possibly never. "They have to put in infrastructure," he explains, "they have to get growth certified; there is a lot that has to happen. And the other thing is that weather will affect it. There could be a big freeze or a big wind or something in Mexico, and they could have a short crop, and all of a sudden they don't have enough fruit to send up. And also, last year, the statistics show that 48 percent of the avocados eaten in the United States were eaten by 18 percent of the population. That is what our statistics show. Now, when you look at that kind of a statistic, you know that you've got some room to grow your market, and that is what we as California growers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars doing since the commission has been formed. And last year the National Hass Avocado Board was formed."

The Hass Avocado Board assesses 2.5 cents on every pound of avocados brought by growers to packing houses and also on every pound imported from Chile and Mexico. The money is also used for marketing avocados.

"You have to remember," Stehly adds, "that Mexico produces two billion pounds of avocados a year, but they also consume a lot. They only ship out about 10 percent. And the price in Mexico last year, from what the packing houses have told me, was about the same as what they were getting for sending them up to the United States. So if that is the truth, then as Mexico's economy grows, their demand for the avocado is going to be higher, and they won't make as much money in sending them to the United States."

Bednar finds hope in demographic changes in the domestic market. "It will take some time before Mexico can bring in a lot of avocados," he says, "and in that time we are going to be expanding our market, especially with the tremendous amount of Hispanic growth in the population of the United States. Avocados are a staple in the Hispanic food tradition."

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