Monday, September 1, 2008

California grape growers wary of proposal on Chile exports

Grape lovers could have an easier time finding Chilean bunches untouched by the potent chemical methyl bromide, under new rules proposed Wednesday by the Agriculture Department.

At Chile's request, and after at least six years of study, the Agriculture Department wants to lift the long-standing requirement that Chilean table grape producers eradicate mites with methyl bromide.

Instead, Chilean producers would follow a new system of registration and inspections.

California table grape growers need not fear either infestation or competition, Bush administration officials insist.

"Most grape production in Chile takes place during U.S. winter months, when there is little or no fresh grape production within the United States with which to compete," the Agriculture Department noted Wednesday.

But the idea is being greeted cautiously in the San Joaquin and Coachella valleys of California, where 99 percent of all U.S. table grapes are grown.

"We still have to learn more," said Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based California Grape and Tree Fruit League. "We know there's going to be overarching concern over the possible introduction of pests."

Kathleen Nave, president of the California Table Grape Commission, agreed that U.S. technical experts must still dig into the details in a five-page Federal Register notice.

"Once we do the analysis, we'll be advocating our position accordingly," Nave said.

Chilean producers currently fumigate their U.S.-bound table grapes with methyl bromide to protect against Brevipalpus chilensis, also known as the false grape mite. Barely 1 millimeter across, the tiny mites nonetheless can be big-time trouble.

The mites feed on leaves and can seriously damage vineyards in the spring. U.S. growers want to do everything they can to avoid them.

Chilean clementine, mandarin and tangerine producers have already been permitted to replace methyl bromide fumigation with a system that includes inspection.

Chile's plant protection agency began testing whether that system could work with table grapes and found that it did, Agriculture Department officials reported Wednesday.

The proposed system would require Chilean producers to register with the country's agriculture officials. Random fruit samples would be tested, and if a single mite were discovered, methyl bromide fumigation would be required for export.

California produces about 703,000 metric tons of table grapes annually. The domestic grapes are primarily shipped to the U.S. market between May and November. Imported grapes take over between December and April. Chile leads the way, accounting for about 75 percent of total U.S. imports.

The issue could further expose divisions among U.S. growers. Coachella Valley growers, whose crop comes in earlier than the San Joaquin Valley's, have in the past been more resistant to measures that would increase Chilean shipments.

Michael Doyle