Modest amounts of fresh grapes from California will be exported to Australia this year under an agreement recently announced by Ann Veneman, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.

Kathleen Nave, president of the California Table Grape Commission, was on hand for the announcement during a visit to Fresno by Veneman and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Anticipating expanded shipments next year, Nave said initial exports will be extremely small, and the terms, even after a dozen years of negotiations with protectionist Australian authorities, have been “unnecessarily restrictive.”

She told a seminar of table grape growers in Visalia she visited Australia last year and retailers and importers there are anxious to bring in California grapes. The Australian minister of agriculture, however, is opposed and “has worked very hard to keep your grapes out of that market,” she added.

Even so, Nave said, the table grape industry “is confident that access will be expanded in the 2003 season because the Bush administration is committed to bringing Australia back to the negotiating table.”

High-level officials of both USDA and the U.S. Trade Representative's Office, she said, are committed to expand the access after 2002.

Australia has a potential for about $10 million in sales of California table grapes and might become one of the top five markets for the industry. The California crop in recent years has been about 85 million boxes, of which about 35 percent is customarily exported.

The industry-funded commission, which is preparing a marketing plan for the Australian market, has been involved since talks began and has supported research required to assure the Australians that shipments are free of pests.

Australian industry

Nave blamed the limited access thus far on Australia's own large and influential table grape industry, which is against the imports. She said the season there is mostly opposite to California, and once complete access is gained the imports will enable Australians to enjoy table grapes year-round.

The commission promoted grapes in 2001 in 22 overseas markets with publicity and sales materials. Among the most recent is India, opened to California grapes last year after a four-year campaign of negotiations.

New Zealand, a market for about 350,000 boxes, was closed late in the season last year after a dispute over spiders found in shipments. Nave said New Zealand's demands for inspection and fumigation are not acceptable because they would set a precedent for other destinations to insist on similar expensive procedures.

“We are working to re-open this market but are taking a fairly hard-line position with both governments, making it clear that the industry is unwilling to add any additional steps to the shipping requirements.”

The commission last year received in excess of $2 million from the federal government for international promotion under a marketing plan that requires the commission to match the federal contribution 70 cents on the dollar.

Disease research

While promotion absorbs about 85 percent of the commission's resources, Nave said it is also involved with fundixng vineyard research, including work on glassy-winged sharpshooter and Pierces Disease in the Arvin-Bakersfield area.

“There is a plan in place to take what has been learned in that research project and transfer it to identified vulnerable areas in the southern Kern County region. The problem has to be addressed on an area-wide, multi-commodity basis.

“The state,” she continued, “has agreed to fund monitoring, trapping, and transfer of information to growers. The only remaining issue is who will pay for treatment if it is needed, in table grapes, citrus, almonds, and other crops involved.”

The California Grape and Tree Fruit League is leading a multi-commodity effort to resolve the issue, and one possibility is for existing pest control districts to forge a legal arrangement for them to work together. No such district for table grapes presently exists, however, and creation of one is being discussed.

For the past several years, some growers and shippers have challenged the commission and other commodity boards as violations of free speech. Nave said the commission, established in 1968, “was created because the industry had lost significant market share and wanted the ability to work together to regain it.”

In terms of market access and promotion abroad, she said, the commission augments the collective power of the industry. “Governments will work with industry organizations on behalf of the whole but generally will not work with individual companies.”

The table grape industry recently conducted a referendum among its 600 growers to decide whether to continue the commission for another five years, and results were expected to be announced early in March.

IPM, new chemistry

Another speaker at the Visalia seminar, Bill Peacock, Tulare County farm advisor, credited integrated pest management, the now-familiar IPM, and new chemistry for protecting the table grape industry.

During the past 30 years, California grape growers have been challenged by introduction of a significant, new, insect or disease pests every three years, most recently the glassy-winged sharpshooter and the citrus peelminer.

Federal, state, and local governments, the industry, and the public will have to “put their best foot forward” to prevent additional pest introductions from outside the state, he said.

IPM practices originated from the University of California in the late 1950s, a time when the grape leafhopper had developed considerable resistance to the then new synthetic organic insecticides and serious biological upsets of spider mites and grape mealybug were appearing.

This set the stage for an effort by several UC specialists who launched intensive studies for the new practices integrating chemical, cultural, and biological controls. Subsequent financial support by the California Table Grape Commission and Raisin Advisory Board and participation by progressive growers led the way for eventual adoption of the integrated approach.

Among the serious economic pests that must now be controlled in vineyards up and down the state is vine mealybug, which first appeared in the Coachella Valley in 1994. By 1999, it had spread through the entire Coachella Valley and penetrated northward as far as Fresno County.

Peacock urged growers to avoid contamination with movement of workers and machinery and keep the mealybug from spreading farther in California vineyards.

He said the industry cannot afford to be complacent and when an exotic pest is detected the immediate response must be to eradicate it, or at the very least, confine it.

e-mail: dbryant@primediabusiness.com