Argentine lemons are on their way and California farmers are angry.
Friday was the first day that South American lemons were allowed into the U.S. market after a 16-year absence.
Consumers will not see a big change, says Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, a citrus trade group based in Exeter. He estimates that with the additional lemons entering the market consumers may see a small drop in prices – between 2 and 4 percent.
The bigger impact will be to the 750 lemon growers in California. “That is who is going to be hurt by this,” Nelsen said.
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Citrus growers were feeling somewhat confident in January when President Donald Trump issued a 60-day stay on the Obama administration’s plans to lift the ban on lemons from Argentina. But in May, President Trump, who many in farming voted for, agreed to lift the ban and farmers were feeling betrayed.
Nelsen said many in the industry felt “shocked and blindsided” by the decision and last week citrus industry leaders filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Fresno. The suit, filed by the U.S. Citrus Science Council, alleges the federal government relied on incomplete science and political considerations in making its decision.
Nelsen said this fight isn’t against foreign competition. They already face it from rivals, including Mexico, Chile and Peru. What they are afraid of is the possibility that Argentine lemons may be infected with pests or disease, namely citrus blackspot, a fungal disease that causes lesions on the fruit’s skin.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has said there is nothing to worry about. They have done their due diligence and the lemons coming from the northwest region of Argentina are safe and can be imported to the U.S. The USDA expects imports of fresh lemons from Argentina to range from 16,500 and 22,000 tons each year.
How does that stack up with California farmers? Ventura County accounts for more than one-third of California’s lemon acreage, producing nearly 280,000 tons in 2014. In Tulare and Fresno counties, lemons accounted for a combined 121,500 tons of fruit with a crop value of about $120.6 million in 2015, according to the two counties’ respective crop reports.
This year, Argentine lemons will arrive in the U.S. through northeast ports. Argentina’s harvest generally runs from April through August, while growers in Southern California harvest from March through early September. In the San Joaquin Valley, the lemon harvest runs from November through March.