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Lockout threatens Madera agriculture

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webmaster | 10/01/02

Madera grape grower and packer Morgan Johnson isn't surprised that the table grapes he shipped out for Bangladesh earlier this week are today sitting in cold storage in Madera.

His customers on the other end of the line are probably scratching their heads, he figures, but at least he can keep the perishable product healthy for 60 days.

It's the 1,500 boxes of grapes aimed for markets in New Zealand, now sitting on a pier in Long Beach, that have the La Vina Ranch owner a bit worried.

"I'm told they're sitting on the dock in a place where they can't be picked up," Johnson said. "They're just waiting for the strike to be over."

Johnson's not fretting over the boxes right now, he said, because the New Zealand shipment represents a minuscule part of his annual 500,000-box year, most of which have domestic buyers.

Still, 20 years in the business and it's the first time he's seen a situation like this, where a supposed war-time economy is threatened by a lockout at American ports from San Diego to Seattle.

"I'm told that the economy's losing about a billion dollars a day," he said. "I can't see how this can go on much longer."

The effect a prolonged Longshoreman lockout could have on Madera's overall $260 million grape, almond and pistachio industry – those crops being harvest now – is debatable, said Farm Bureau Executive Director Jason Baldwin.

"Whether it's a net benefit or a net problem is hard to say because our agricultural products are both imported and exported," Baldwin said.

Already, Madera Agriculture Commission Bob Rolan said his field investigators are less busy now than a week ago, especially for product with overseas markets.

For example, with 60 percent of its markets overseas, Madera's Almond industry could be hard hit if the Pacific Maritime Association can't work out an agreement with dock workers soon, Baldwin said.

Or Fuji Apple farmers in northern Madera could see their product get turned around and sold on domestic markets, earning them a lot less here than in fancy Asian markets.

"We've got three containers of Fujis stuck in ports with the units running," said Atomic Torosian of Crown Jewels, a grower, packer, shipper and marketer. "Four or five days, we'll be okay. But if this goes on into the middle of next week, they'll be sent back to the packing plant. And we've got two more in the warehouse ready to be shipped!"

The good news is that the harvest is about 80 percent over, with half of Madera's number one money maker – grapes – mostly safely crushed, shipped or dried as raisins.

It's the relationships between shippers and buyers that stand the greatest chance of strain, say experts.

The bigger the packer or shipper, says Johnson, the harder the hit because, as he puts it: "They have to find more markets. But only about 10 percent of our product goes overseas."

Two of Madera's biggest packers, Deniz Packing, Inc. and Robert Johnson Farms, are Torosian's clients.

"We've got a marketing window right now with customers overseas," Torosian said. "If you miss that time slot, you loose continuity with a customer. And they'll get it elsewhere or cancel the order a week or two later."

And then there are the real long-term – almost geological – effects on Madera's future agriculture, as one local farmer explained.

"We've got fertilizers we need stuck in the ports," he said. "We won't feel the effect of not fertilizing immediately, but a year or two from now, maybe."

Forget next year, says Torosian, we've got big problems coming next week, especially if rumors he's heard are true about the longshoreman in Vancouver, British Columbia, thinking of joining their American compatriots in the effort.

"All that talk about a billion dollars lost a day is definitely a reality," Torosian said. "This disruption of shipping has really played havoc with us because we've had to make packing adjustments as if the strike could continue for some time. Even if they end it by Friday, it'll be a logistical logjam."


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