GROWERS PROTEST CITRUS PROPOSAL; POTENTIAL DISASTER SEEN IN IMPORTS.
Local growers, hit hard by the winter freeze that devastated many of the state's agricultural areas, arrived by the hundreds Monday to fight a plan to import Argentine citrus - a move they say could provide the next attack against top crops.
Carrying placards reading ``First the Freeze, Now Disease,'' and ``We like the Tango, But We Don't Like Black Spot,'' and backed by elected officials from throughout the state, growers registered their opposition to the Department of Agriculture's proposal they say could bring pests and disease.
``I can only imagine the horrible situation that would arise if a major Medfly infestation would occur,'' U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein said in a statement. ``I think these concerns are legitimate.''
Congressman Elton Gallegly, R-Oxnard, described the economic hardship that would unfold from lost crops, while a representative for U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer called on the USDA to fill in the ``scientific blanks'' of the proposal.
``(What) this seems to me is a foreseeable disaster we can prevent,'' Boxer's statement said. ``The department should withdraw this proposal and work to improve the weak science on which it is based.''
The hearing comes as Thursday's deadline nears for public comment on the proposed rule by the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. It would allow Argentina to send fresh lemons, oranges and grapefruit from areas known to have two diseases not found locally - citrus black spot and sweet orange scab - and the Mediterranean fruit fly.
A decision will not be reached for several months, officials said.
The rule, proposed in August, is opposed by growers in Ventura County, where lemons are a $217 million-a-year industry, making the area the nation's largest lemon producer. Oranges rank fifth among county crops.
But representatives from Argentina urged the federal agency to open markets to its produce, saying the proposal has been five years in the making and has strict requirements to ensure that imported produce would not harm local crops.
``The proposed rule is based on . . . sound science,'' said Gustavo Muslara, general manager of Argentina's Northwestern Phytosanitary Association.
Another Argentine agricultural official explained the proposal's specific procedures, from keeping orchards free from fallen leaves where black spot is known to dwell to inspecting crates of fruit at various stops during shipment.
``The complete program I explained in my speech is scientifically founded,'' said Lourdes Fonalleras, director of the Servicio Nacional de Sanidad y Calidad Agroalimentaria, the country's national plant protection organization. ``Their (U.S.) groves will not be affected by new pests.''
Local growers have mounted a hefty campaign, warning against new diseases that could wipe out crops and prevent local citrus from being shipped to important overseas markets. They also worry about a repeat of the Medfly infestation of 1994 that left the county quarantined.
One growers organization, the U.S. Citrus Science Council, has asked Argentina for permission to inspect the crops and survey the mitigation measures.
But Monday, growers and supporters mostly called on the USDA to postpone a decision until further study could be done.
``This document is far from a level playing field,'' said Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner Earl McPhail.
``Without sound science, we are asking for a risk,'' said Ventura County Supervisor Kathy Long, whose district includes some of the county's prime agriculture areas. ``And it's a risk we don't wish to take.''
PHOTO (1--Color in Simi and Conejo Editions only) Hundreds of growers turned out Monday for the public hearing on importing Argentine citrus.
(2--Ran in Simi and Conejo Editions only) U.S. Department of Agriculture officials Mike Lidsky, left, Ron Campbell, Mary Palm and Mike Firko listen to speakers at the hearing in Thousand Oaks.
Phil McCarten/Daily News