- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2003

FRESNO, Calif. — California peach growers who sell to the canned and frozen fruit markets are ripping out peach trees to offset a glut as they compete with foreign growers.

Imports from Argentina, Australia, Chile and South Africa are flooding the canned peach industry, and imports from Greece and Spain are particularly difficult to compete against because of European Union subsidies, according to the California Canning Peach Association.

Peach imports have increased from 1 million to 3 million cases in the past three years, while retail sales of canned peaches have declined in the United States, down from $7.2 million in 1997 to $6.4 million in 2001. U.S. farmers are producing more peaches but have fewer contracts with canning companies. Some processors are being forced out of business.

"We have too many peaches," said Ajayab Dhaddey, who directs field operations for the canning association, which represents about 80 percent of California's growers of canning peaches.

To offset the glut, the tree-pulling program was approved in December for the fourth time in 20 years. The association estimates about 29,000 tons, or about 1.5 million cases of peaches, will be eliminated.

"You have to do something with the surplus. You can't raise them and not sell them," said Wayne Springer, a Yuba County peach grower in Northern California, who has ripped out 20 acres from his 300-acre peach orchard.

Mr. Springer and other growers will receive about $100 per ton of peaches, based on the average yield they produced in the past three years. The maximum payment is $2,000 per acre, with the money coming from fees paid to the association.

Growers who participate in the tree-pulling program agree to forgo planting peach trees for five years if they don't have a contract with a cannery.

California produces nearly 90 percent of the nation's canned peaches usually made from clingstone peaches and more than 50 percent of the nation's fresh peaches. The fresh peach market has been more stable, association officials said.

The number of canneries and fruit processors has declined throughout California, making it difficult for growers to maintain long-standing income through contracts.

One of the largest processors in the valley, Tri Valley Growers, filed for bankruptcy in July 2000. About one-third of the state's canning peach growers had contracts with the company, which has since been bought by Signature Fruit Co.

"There's no buyers right now, so I don't want to spend the money on a crop that costs $2,000 to harvest and nobody is going to buy," said Didar Singh Bains, who will destroy 350 acres on his 2,000-acre farm.

Industry analysts said more people would rather buy fresh fruit. Retail sales make up about half of the canned peach sales and restaurants make up the other half.

The California Cling Peach Board, a marketing and research group for the clingstone peach growers, said it is pushing a patriotic appeal of U.S.-produced fruits to help sales.

The industry is hoping the U.S. Department of Agriculture will buy more peaches for the school lunch program and growers are lobbying against free-trade agreements with South Africa and Australia.

"It's pretty hard for 800 cling peach growers in California to compete against the treasury of the European Union, and essentially that's what we're being asked to do," said Randy Fiorini, peach board chairman.

Mr. Fiorini said instead of paying growers to rip out orchards, the money could be better spent on canned fruit-marketing programs.

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