California raisin growers say European farm subsidies dry up sales

Raisin growers in California's Fresno County are not at all happy with what they consider an unfair advantage enjoyed by their Greek competitors in the lucrative European market.

As an international trade problem, the raisin controversy hasn't received the attention of the Japanese computer-chip challenge or the Russian-West European gas pipeline against which the United States is trying to enforce sanctions.

But the barriers to sale of raisins and other American farm products to European customers is of major concern to US and European Community (EC) representatives currently holding talks in Washington, D.C.

At issue in California's fertile San Joaquin Valley is an EC subsidy that enables Greece's growers to sell their raisins for 37 cents a pound. California raisins, acknowleded to be superior, are preferred by top European confection makers - but, at 96 cents a pound, they cost more than twice as much as the Greek product.

Five thousand farmers in Fresno County, who produce a third of the world's raisins and normally sell some 30 percent of their crop in Europe, are affected by the farm subsidies of the EC (Common Market). Subsidies for Greek raisins began when Greece became a member of the EC in January 1981.

EC officials defend agricultural subsidies as a means of helping less-developed member countries. But many US farm products - including fruits, wheat, sugar, and poultry - have to compete with subsidized European crops, not all of which are grown by the Common Market's poorer members.

EC spokesmen also point out that Western Europe exports about $2 billion worth of commodities to the US a year while purchasing some $9 billion worth of American goods.

Spokesmen for the Fresno County growers say that most European buyers are willing to pay a premium price for California raisins. But the differential of some 60 cents a pound makes Greek raisins hard to resist.

California didn't invent the raisin, but the seedless Thompson grape - which the Greeks also now use - was developed here in the late 1800s. What makes Fresno County raisins superior is the drying method. Around the first of September, the grapes begin a 17-day drying period under the California sun. If weather conditions are good - and they usually are - the result is a uniform, dark-brown raisin that has a sugar content of around 20 percent. It's dubbed ''nature's candy'' by the Sun-Maid Growers Cooperative, which markets the product of its members in the familiar red box with the black-tressed country lass on the label.

Because their climate isn't so dependably benign, the Greeks rush their curing process by adding chemicals. The raisins then go through a cleaning process, but the pale brown result is not as attractive, sweet, or nutritious as the California raisin.

Kalem Barserian, manager of the Raisin Bargaining Association in Fresno, which represents more than 2,000 of the county's raisin producers, points out that the group's members are not big corporate farmers. The average size raisin vineyard in the area is 34 acres. But the growers are well organized, and they support a $500 million industry in which more than 50,000 people are employed.

These organized growers are seeking federal relief under the provisions of the Unfair Trade Practices Law. They also have a complaint before an international arbitration court in Geneva. Hearings have been postponed several times, but Mr. Barserian says he believes the case will be heard near the end of September.

The budget bill sent to the President last week provides $175 million annually over the next three years for agricultural export subsidies, promotion, and other activities. Part of that could be used to aid US raisin growers.

US Rep. Tony Coelho (D) of California, who represents the Fresno area, says he has been assured by an administration trade representative that every effort will be made to settle the raisin export problem within a year.

The Fresno growers have voted to almost double their advertising in the US, with the hope of getting Americans to buy more than the one pound per person consumed in the country annually. Europeans consume four pounds of raisins per capita annually, so loss of most of that market could mean that a lot of California raisins will remain in storage.

Making the export situation particularly frustrating, says Barserian, is the fact that, if the drying goes well, Fresno County's raisin growers will have a bumper crop this year - some 300,000 tons, or 50 percent more than usual.

Since the dried fruit is almost imperishable, it can be held off the market for a more opportune time. However, Barserian points out, the farmers' production costs keep rising, and stored raisins can't be used to meet bank notes.

Thompson grapes can be sold to winemakers or as table grapes, usually on consignment, says Barserian. But, he points out, that means the price is set by the purchaser.

Barserian and others predict that if the European price inequity is not corrected, some Fresno County growers are likely to lose their farms within a couple of years.

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