California kiwifruit growers to vote on federal marketing effort

WASHINGTON — Struggling San Joaquin Valley kiwifruit growers may soon shift how they run research and ad campaigns.

With imports up and domestic acreage down, the kiwifruit growers want the same kind of Agriculture Department powers that have helped underwrite such famous ad slogans as "The Incredible, Edible Egg," "Pork. The Other White Meat," and "Got Milk?"

On Tuesday, following several years of study, the growers moved closer to their goal. The Agriculture Department scheduled for next month an industry referendum that growers believe could lead to an administrative consolidation, improved advertising and enhanced research.

"I think that the more money there is for research, the better off the industry would be," Paul Wiley, a retired researcher at the University of California's Kearney Agricultural Center near Parlier, said Tuesday.

Wiley serves on the 12-member Kiwifruit Administrative Committee, which is overseen by the Agriculture Department. During the March 12-26 referendum, several hundred kiwifruit growers and handlers will vote on whether to grant new research and promotion authority to this existing committee. The research and ads would be funded through industry fees.

A separate organization, the California Kiwifruit Commission, already has research and promotion authority under state law. Giving the federal committee these same research and promotion powers, along with other changes, could set the stage for eventually merging the state and federal efforts.

Wiley noted that "most of the people" active in the Kiwifruit Administrative Committee are already active in the California Kiwifruit Commission as well.

"There is a general consensus throughout the industry that the future administration of these programs would be most cost-effective and efficient when done through one organization," Wil-Ker-Son Ranch office manager Desta Bechtol testified at a Modesto field hearing in December 2008.

Based near Gridley, north of Yuba City, Wil-Ker-Son Ranch in the late 1970s was one of the first kiwifruit operations to take root in the Sacramento Valley. At the time, kiwifruit production in the United States was commercially insignificant.

The fibrous green fruit grew in popularity, with California plantings peaking at 7,300 acres in the early 1990s. At its peak, in the 1990s, California counted some 690 kiwifruit growers.

Since then, the state's kiwifruit acreage has fallen to about 4,000 acres while imports from the likes of Chile, New Zealand and Italy now account for nearly 70 percent of U.S. sales. There are currently about 220 commercial kiwifruit growers in California, farming 4,000 acres in areas including Fresno, Tulare and Yuba counties. There are also about 28 kiwifruit handlers.

The growers try to help themselves through the federal marketing order established in 1984, which sets standards for size, quality and packing. Unlike other marketing orders, though, the federal program does not yet authorize research and promotion efforts.

Kiwifruit growers believe they could dedicate more money to promotion if they eliminated administrative duplication. By itself, the vote next month will not merge the Kiwifruit Administrative Committee and the California Kiwifruit Commission, but it could set the stage for merger once the committees have duplicate powers.

"Right now ... they require having separate meetings, separate boards, separate accounting, and separate reporting," Kings County grower John Fagundes IV testified. "So by being consolidated, we'd go down from two boards to one board."