California citrus growers are caught in the middle of a labor dispute between dockworkers and shipping lines that could end with millions of pounds of rotten oranges.
The bitter negotiations over a new union contract for dockworkers has resulted in major slowdowns in the unloading and loading of cargo ships at major West Coast ports, causing a serious bottleneck in the entire nation's economy. The conflict has coincided with unusually hot weather throughout the drought-baked state, which is causing oranges to ripen a month ahead of schedule.
Heaps of fruit are now stranded in portside warehouses and on half-loaded boats in Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland. That puts a great deal of the crop at risk of spoiling during what is normally the busiest time of year for packers sending citrus to Asia.
"At the current rate, there will be fruit discarded," says Tom Wollenman, vice-president and general manager of LoBue Citrus, a grower and packer in California's San Joaquin Valley.
California is forecast to produce just over 300 million pounds of oranges this season, of which more than a quarter could be exported, according to Bob Blakely, vice-president of the industry group California Citrus Mutual. He says the voyage from the California coast to South Korea, China and Japan — major destinations for California's prized navel oranges — usually takes 14 to 21 days.
"These delays will add 10 days to two weeks to the trip," he says. "The fruit really starts to break down after three or four weeks."
Farmers, not those handling the fruit, will take the heaviest hit if the produce spoils before reaching Asia. Wollenman says farmers generally don't receive money for their shipped fruit until after receivers buy it. On average, a farmer will make a profit of roughly $13 on a 40-pound carton of oranges, Wollenman says.
But if the fruit perishes at sea, California farmers waiting for paychecks could get nothing. "They might even get a bill," says Wollenman. He explains that receivers who must dispose of rotten fruit may charge the sender $2 to $3 per box.
California's farmers are desperately trying to avoid such losses. Many are simply delaying picking, since the safest place to store oranges and other citrus fruit for long periods of time is often on the tree.
Trouble is, this method works best in cold weather. This winter has been exceptionally mild, with daytime high temperatures recently soaring into the 70s throughout the state. The spring-like weather is hastening the ripening of fruit, and many ready-to-eat oranges are dropping from the trees at a time when chilly winter air would normally provide outdoor refrigeration conditions. Blakely says cold storage facilities are not an option for most growers.
Other farmers have sent their fruit to Houston, to be rerouted to Asia via the Panama Canal.
"That adds a week to travel time, but at least it gets the fruit on the water," Blakely says.
A few farmers, he says, have even driven out to the Port of Oakland to try and retrieve their oranges from the holds of cargo ships stalled by the port impasse. Many growers are looking for opportunities to sell their oranges domestically while the dock crisis plays out, Blakely says.
But selling a surplus of citrus in the U.S. may not be possible. Even if the fruit is offered at discounted prices, Americans tend to eat only so many oranges, lemons and tangerines, Blakely says. Wollenman says the best deal for some farmers may be to turn over their valuable oranges to the juice market at a meager buck per box.
The federal government is trying to resolve the port conflict, but Blakely fears the delays will continue for weeks more. The orange harvest, he says, often continues into July.
Other California producers who rely on Asian markets include growers of alfalfa, almonds, walnuts, rice and wine. But Blakely says the labor strife puts fresh fruit, like oranges, at particular risk.
"Almonds aren't a perishable crop," he says. "But the product of our labor is rotting on the docks."
Alastair Bland is a journalist based in San Francisco.