published on May 2, 2017 - 2:23 AM
Written by David Castellon

Leaders in California’s citrus industry believe the Trump administration is using them as bargaining chips to try to close a long-standing political and economic rift with Argentina.

And they say lemon growers in the state could pay the price as the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service announced unexpectedly late Monday that it will lift the ban prohibiting the import of Argentine lemons into the U.S.

“I was taken completely off guard,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, an Exeter-based trade association representing the state’s citrus growers.

“We weren’t even called” ahead of the announcement, he added.

Nelsen, who happened to be in Washington, D.C. Tuesday on unrelated business, said he immediately began calling USDA officials to find out what had changed for the U.S. to suddenly lift the ban, but he got no clear answer from the agency other than indications the decision came from “higher up.”

That higher up is presumed by many to be President Donald Trump, who indicated last week that he would look into the decision last year by his predecessor, Barack Obama, to lift the ban dating back to the 1960s — with the exception of a few months in 1999 and 2000 — to prohibit Argentine lemons from being imported here because of the quarantine-level threats of disease and infestation that could spread to U.S. commercial lemon crops by the foreign lemons.

That announcement of the Trump Administration reviewing the ban came before Trump’s April 27 meeting at the White House with Argentine President Mauricio Macri, who has been pushing for increased trade with the U.S. after years of contentious relations between the two countries.

“There was an agreement to allow Argentine lemons into the U.S.,” after Obama’s meeting with Macri early last year, said Richard Pidduck, a grower of lemons and Mandarins in Santa Paula and chairman of the U.S. Citrus Science Council, a nonprofit comprised of growers who work to keep citrus-threatening diseases and invasive pests from foreign countries out of this country.

“What happened was president Macri from Argentina flew in last week to meet with President Trump, and top of his agenda was Argentine lemons. And it was pretty apparent he walked out of that [meeting] with the lemon deal in his pocket,” considering the announcement on lifting the ban came just a few days later, Pidduck said.

Though he wouldn’t speculate on what the U.S. would get out of such a deal, Pidduck said he figures, “There was some quid pro quo.

“I hope we weren’t given away for nothing.”

In his written statement, Pidduck said, “It is evident that the California citrus industry is the pawn in a greater trade deal between the Trump Administration and Argentina.

“It doesn’t help [most] all domestic lemons are grown in California, with a few in Arizona,” and California was one of the states that Trump failed to take in November’s presidential election, he explained. “California is not in the best graces with the Trump administration.”

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