Californians anticipate victory next spring in battle against the Medfly

"There is no doubt that we'll see Medflies next year," declared Clark Biggs, spokesman for the California Farm Bureau. No one involved in this state's two-year war against the tiny blue-eyed Mediterranean fruit fly denies it. But there is general agreement in the California agricultural community that despite a faltering start, the program aimed at eradicating the destructive insect is going well and has good prospects for succeeding in the third -- and everyone hopes the final -- round next spring.

Gary Scribner, director of the Medfly control project, is winding up a two-week vacation Oct. 6 -- a holiday he would not have taken if the program were not going well. Isi Siddiqui, assistant project director in charge of spraying, says: "I am very optimistic. Aerial and ground spraying are working effectively."

Any impression that the Medfly has been winging its way over California like Sherman marching through Georgia is inaccurate. As Mr. Biggs points out, the "heartland" of California's fruit and vegetable production has not been touched by Medfly infestation.

The relatively small area under quarantine and being sprayed centers around the southern realm of San Francisco Bay. The quarantine area has been expanded a few times, but with the exception of the Baldwin Park area in Los Angeles County and Stanislaus County in the northern San Joaquin Valley, adult or larval medflies have only been spotted in the Bay Area.

Attempts by a few states to quarantine all fruits, nuts, and vegetables from California were turned aside by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and federal courts. Besides costs incurred because of the special handling required to protect against Medfly infestation, the greatest losses outside the quarantine areas have resulted from what some call the consumer "scare."

Northern California apple growers had a particularly good crop this year and expected to reap bountiful profits. But buyer reluctance forced them to sell most of their apples to processors at one-tenth what they would have received in the fresh fruit market.

Avocado producers say they have lost as much as $1 million a week because of worried buyers.

Sunkist, a major supplier of citrus fruit to Japan, sent a shipload of grapefruit, lemons, and oranges to that country last weekend -- the first shipment in six weeks. The Japanese government will admit no California fruit unless it has been fumigated, and Sunkist had been refusing to comply.

A second ship will be loaded with fumigated citrus for Japan this week, a company spokesman said.

Fumigation, the spokesman explained, reduces "shelf life" somewhat, but the fruit is otherwise unaffected. Some $100 million worth of California citrus is sold to Japan each year. Using that base figure, some observers say the industry has been losing $2 million a week in Japanese business.

Smaller shippers of citrus to Japan continued to resist fumigating, since the cost might well absorb their profits.

No one has yet totaled the loss to the growers in the quarantined areas who had to destroy practically all their crops. California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. asked President Reagan to declare segments of four Bay Area counties a federal disaster area, but was turned down. Most of the commercial growers who lost all or part of their crops were small operators -- unlike the "corporate" farmers of the Central Valley.

Ed Yates, vice-president of the California League of Food Processors, points out that in excess of 2 million tons of raw produce is being processed under "compliance agreements" that involve rigid handling requirements in order to prevent the spread of Medfly infestation.

For example, tomatoes are normally sent to canneries in 25-ton truckloads. Under the compliance agreement, the loads are reduced to 18-to-20 tons to safeguard against any tomatoes being lost along the roadside. The cost per load , says Mr. Yates, is $80.

What might that mean to the consumer in, say, New Jersey, who buys canned tomatoes? A negligible price rise, if any, he says: "It won't raise the price of a can of tomatoes by 3 cents."

The industry also is absorbing most of the cost of a number of other steps taken to guard against Medfly infestation, be notes.

It is clear that the $4 billion-a-year California industry that supplies much of America's fresh and processed fruits, nuts, and vegetables was not as sharply affected by the Medfly situation as was at first feared. But the cost of containing the pest has not been slight -- and the expenditure will continue for some time.

According to estimates by a budget analyst for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the department spent $22 million in three months, July to September, and the USDA spent $7 million in the quarantine and eradication efforts.

The just-adjourned session of the California Legislature passed a $50 million appropriation to fight the Medfly. It is hoped that with federal aid that now is being worked out this will carry the program through next February.

It has cost $850,000 per week for aerial spraying of the infested areas -- 10 helicopters working five days a week.

Previously, the state Agriculture Department spent $1 million of emergency funds on the Medfly effort and $1 million from the general state contingency fund.

Also, an earlier deficiency appropriation of $13.3 billion was spent fighting the Medfly.

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