Politics & Government

California kiwifruit growers get federal boost

WASHINGTON -- Uncle Sam is doubling down on an investment in California kiwifruit, with a new boost in funding for overseas ads and marketing.

Illustrating how taxpayers support Central Valley growers, the Agriculture Department is giving the California Kiwifruit Commission $321,800 to spur exports. The new payment is a record for the commission now based in Sacramento, and nearly twice what the kiwifruit growers received last year.

"I think everybody agrees that exports are an area we need to increase," Visalia-based kiwifruit grower Doug Phillips said Tuesday. "It's an important part of our overall sales."

Phillips, the immediate past president of the kiwifruit commission, said the federal funds will help marketing efforts in Mexico, South Korea and, potentially, India and Central American countries.

"Some of it will be just point-of-sale material printed in the right language," Phillips said. "Some of it is for interacting with wholesalers and retailers, to keep California kiwifruit in the forefront."

The money comes courtesy of the Agriculture Department's $200 million-a-year Market Access Program, a once-controversial program that Congress recently reauthorized in the latest farm bill.

The public funding underwrites many kinds of marketing efforts. California winemakers, for instance, host foreign wine writers on all-expense-paid tours of winegrowing regions. Other money pays for cooking contests, television ads and store displays. In some cases, it pays for foreign travel by California-based industry leaders.

Formerly based in Fresno, until its relocation northward earlier this month, the California Kiwifruit Commission is still a relatively modest recipient of the federal market access funds. Citrus giant Sunkist Growers, for instance, was awarded $4.2 million for its overseas work this year, while the California Prune Board received $3.1 million.

Compared to billion-dollar crop subsidies, the overall Market Access Program is likewise relatively modest. It is, however, a particular favorite among California growers, Central Valley lawmakers and the lobbyists who helped shape the new farm bill. Californians call the program one of the few tangible benefits that the state's fruit-and-vegetable growers get from traditional farm bills.

California-based farm groups this year are taking at least one-quarter of this year's funding, with the state's wineries, table grapes, walnuts and raisins among the big winners.

The farm bill provides $200 million in market access funding annually over the next five years. Originally, California growers had wanted more. An early farm bill package introduced last year by Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, would have provided $350 million annually.

Skeptics have called the program corporate welfare for the likes of winemaking behemoth E&J Gallo Winery, and some economists have questioned its effectiveness.

"One would think that wealthy wine producers could market their own products instead of asking taxpayers (for help)," the libertarian-minded Cato Institute declared in its budget assessment.

Congress responded to past criticism by changing the program's name several times and tightening some requirements. Something worked. This year, unlike in previous farm bills, no lawmaker took a stab at curtailing the market access funds.

California accounts for nearly all of the nation's kiwifruit production, valued at some $36 million annually. Domestic consumption is considerably lower than in other countries, like Italy and Spain. Currently, about 38 percent of the California kiwi crop is exported