Lemon growers sue Fed, soured on important rule

santa paula, calif. – Lemon growers are suing the federal government for its failure to protect the crop from imported pests and disease.

On May 18, the U.S. Citrus Science Council (USCSC), representing approximately 750 family farmers and the overwhelming majority of fresh lemon production in the United States, announced its filing of a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for implementing a rule allowing Argentine lemons to be imported into the country.

Richard Pidduck, a Santa Paula area lemon grower and plaintiff, said the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) did not take into consideration the Plant Protection Act which clearly states that the agency must “reduce to the extent practicable….the risk of dissemination of plant pests and noxious weeds” and it must “base” decisions affecting imports …on sound science. Upon passing the act in 2000, the House Agriculture Committee made the following statement: “The past cannot be altogether remedied, but the future can be safeguarded, and this Act will go a long way toward accomplishing this end.”

“It is obvious that political considerations outweighed the basic administrative process and science for the past 12 months,” states Pidduck.

This was the same proposal placed on hiatus because of issues regarding the efficacy of its scientific evaluations and the proposed systems approach for protecting the domestic citrus industry. On Jan. 20, citrus industry leaders applauded the Trump Administration’s direction that APHIS issue a stay for 60 days on the rule. However, “Then President Trump met with the Argentine President in April of 2017 after which access was soon announced,” he said.

Furthermore, members of the California citrus industry are challenging the rule saying the USDA’s decision violated provisions of the Administrative Procedure Act, a federal law that establishes how federal agencies can issue rules. Joel Nelsen, president of Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual (CCM), said the rule is claimed to be grounded on information gained from an Argentine site visit said to have taken place in 2015, which contradicted industry data that projected Argentina would invite invasive pests that historically infest urban areas prior to transiting to commercial farming locations. Nelsen said the USDA failure to respond and the lack of trip details requested in a Freedom of Information Act filing are in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.

“That is just one reason why the rule is fatally flawed,” said Nelsen, whose trade association represents 75% of California’s $3.3 billion citrus industry.

“The visit was simply a paper exercise inasmuch the Argentine industry was in a dormant stage at the time of the trip,” states San Joaquin Valley citrus producer Curt Holmes. “As a grower of lemons and other citrus varieties, I know when pests are prevalent and when the optimum time for evaluating pressures exists. Flush, bloom and petal fall is the major time frame for that to occur. For USDA to assume they can make a determination before any of that occurs is absurd.”

The USCSC is striving to understand why this rule is being put into effect when the a May 15 Executive Order signed by the President on “Promoting Agriculture & Rural Prosperity in America” clearly enunciated policies to preserve family farms to promote American agriculture and protect the rural communities where food, fiber, timber and many of our renewable fuels are cultivated.

APHIS’ own ruling acknowledged that “lemon producers, packinghouses, wholesalers and related establishments will be adversely affected economically.” The report stated that lemon growers would likely lose $19.9 million as an industry that is centered in California, which produces about 84% of the country’s lemons.

Robert Grether, a Ventura area lemon grower and Board member for the USCSC adds, “As Ventura County citrus growers, my brother and I know first-hand the pressures of invasive pests. Our family has been farming here for five generations and we hope to continue the tradition of our family farm that each generation has worked so hard to sustain.”

APHIS’ report also concluded that consumers may benefit from the rule forecasting that the price of lemons will drop by 4%. The lawsuit argues that incomplete science and political considerations led to a flawed rulemaking process. The end result is to make California lemon industry a pawn to achieve other goals. The lawsuit was filed in the Federal District Court in Fresno.



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