Citrus growers had a hard time finding foreign markets for their product, just as pitted fruit growers fear they will as well. File photo

published on May 20, 2020 - 2:10 PM
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Uncertainty for fruit exports as well as delayed buying from grocery stores has already caused prices for summer commodities to drop. And if nothing happens soon, some farmers could face tough decisions.

Over the past two years, growers of stone fruit, citrus and more have had trouble getting produce to its biggest buyer — China — because of trade disputes. Even though the first phase of negotiations had reached some settlement between the U.S. and China, buying has continued to drop, according to Ian LeMay, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association in Fresno.

Beyond buying, coronavirus has also disrupted the highly synchronized movement of shipping containers. The large steel boxes fresh fruit relies on for transport are getting stuck in ports. Illnesses have stymied unloading at ports. The Wall Street Journal reports that some container carrier companies have seen declines in volume by as much as 15% globally.

“We just started picking cherries. We haven’t heard where the market is yet,” said Manuel Cunha, Jr., president of the Nisei Farmers League in Fresno.

“Blueberries just started, we haven’t heard yet where the market is. Those two products are going to be a real indicator.”

For cherries, the first stone fruit to be picked this season, about 30% goes overseas, as does citrus and other pitted fruits such as peaches and nectarines. Upwards of 40% of table grapes are exported.

Labor and the cost-intensive nature of the tree-grown produce does not lend itself to high margins.

Ag commissioners for the different counties have to issue phytosanitary certificates for each exported load.

For the seven-month period from Oct. 1, 2019 to May 1, 2020, the Tulare County Ag Commissioner certified 13,988 certificates, a drop of 817 from the same time period in 2020. Christopher Greer, assistant ag commissioner for Tulare County, described the decrease as “slight,” with the biggest impact being on citrus and then pistachios. But these decreases have existed for the past two years.

Decreased exports can mean a flooded domestic market.

Fruit packers and distributors are still reeling from the effects of panic buying, said LeVon Gamajian, vice president of retail for Trinity Fruit in Fresno, which processes and packs stone fruit across the western United States.

Normally, at this time of the year, grocery stores are clamoring to purchase cherries, and soon peaches and nectarines. Demand usually exceeds supply, fueling the fruit’s profitability. But purchasing hasn’t even begun, Gamajian said.

“It’s scaring me a little bit,” said Gamajian. “And part of that reason is that retailers aren’t carrying a lot of the SKUs (Stock Keeping Units, the inventory management term for a distinct item for sale) they normally would.”

Stone fruit is largely an impulse buy, he said. And with people spending less time in the stores and using online ordering to purchase groceries, the thought of buying fresh fruit goes by the wayside, he added.

Cherries especially have very short shelf lives of between seven to 10 days.

The season is still just starting for fresh fruit, and Gamajian is still hopeful the market will normalize by June.

Unlike vegetables, tree-fruit growers are invested for the long haul.

“Decisions are made long term,” said LeMay. “If the industry does not see a viable future, then they have to make some pretty tough decisions at that point.”

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