Things are more desperate for California citrus farmers. The ports slowdown is stalling the shipment of oranges and other citrus to Asia—a market that collectively buys around 25 percent of the California orange crop. Oranges are particularly popular during Chinese New Year—which is Thursday—as a symbolic and festive fruit. China, including Hong Kong, is the second largest market for California orange exports after South Korea.
"The ports slowdown is having a very significant impact on our business and has the potential to be catastrophic if it continues," said Bob Blakely, vice president of California Citrus Mutual, a group that represents citrus growers in that state. "We are into the peak of our export season, and this week our shipments were off 50 percent compared to the same week last year."
Total exports could be down as much as 50 percent for the entire year—exports account for about $500 million of a total $2 billion in citrus sales for the state, Blakely said. The fruit that is making it to Asia is delayed and in poorer shape than it would otherwise be. Blakely said he has heard some accounts of shipments taking 40 days to reach Asia or Australia—almost twice what it should take.
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If the disputes at the ports drag on, the domestic U.S. market may be flooded with oranges originally destined for Asia, driving down prices. Already, growers are cutting back hours for harvesters, who in turn depend on the peak harvesting season for the wages they get from long picking shifts. Growers cannot import tools they need to harvest the rest of their crops—the nets they use to harvest mandarin oranges are made in China.
This worry comes amid a dry winter in what has now become a four-year drought for the state. Many growers have already exhausted their well water and may not be able to grow a crop at all next year, Blakely said.
As for this year's crop, Blakely worries a lot of it will simply "fall off the tree and rot."