WASHINGTON -- After a nearly 1½-year hiatus, California growers can once again sell oranges and lemons in China when the season gets under way in the fall, the Agriculture Department said Friday.
The Chinese banned California-grown navel and Valencia oranges and lemons in April 2013 after finding brown rot, a soil fungus, in a few shipments.
After months of negotiations, USDA and the Chinese government reached an agreement in early August to lift the ban. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the deal Friday after receiving formal notification from Beijing. The agreement requires California growers to take preventive measures to ensure they export only healthy fruit to China.
"Resuming trade before the start of the 2014 citrus shipping season is the result of a lot of effort by a number of USDA employees, who worked very closely with their foreign counterparts to resolve China's concerns," Vilsack said in a statement.
Resuming exports to the world's most populous nation is a "big deal" for the $2 billion California citrus industry, according to Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, a trade group based in Exeter. China is the second-biggest export destination for California citrus and is expected overtake the leader, South Korea, in the next few years, he said.
Until the ban, about $30 million worth of California citrus was being exported to China per year, according to the USDA. Nelsen said he expects that to jump to about $50 million soon.
Growers were worried about having enough water for their citrus groves because of the stubborn California drought. But the 2014-2015 season, which gets under way in November, is expected to yield a good crop nevertheless and provide plenty of fruit to sell to China and other countries, Nelsen said.
Tulare County is the state's No. 1 producer of oranges. And Monterey, Riverside and Imperial counties are among the top orange producers in California, while Ventura County leads in the production of lemons.
The Chinese citrus ban came after California growers had finished exporting navel oranges for the 2012-2013 season and hurt lemon and Valencia exports. All citrus exports to China were put on hold in the 2013-2014 season.
"We were hoping to get (exports) reopened in November in time for the 2013-14 navel orange season . . . but that didn't happen," Nelsen said. "As a result, there were several million packages of fruit that were not exported to China. We were still able to do a little bit of business in Hong Kong, but we lost mainland China."
Brown rot can infect low-hanging citrus when the fruit is splashed by contaminated water that pools on the ground. Jensen said growers weren't told how many China-bound shipments contained infected fruit.
To lift the export ban, growers agreed to remove branches close to the ground so no infected fruit makes it to China, increase ultraviolet scans to spot flaws and infections when the fruit is being packed and to apply copper "" a rot-preventing metal "" on trees earlier in the season, after the first rains. These steps will raise the cost a bit, but still keep till keep California citrus competitively priced, Jensen said.
"We felt that those were reasonable steps that we should take to ensure the integrity of the (exports)," he said in an interview.
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