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U.S. aid to Morocco worries California olive farmers

9/19/2011 21:57:41 PM



The biggest threat to California's historic olive industry isn't the bad weather, disease, prohibitive harvesting costs and fierce competition already taking their toll, growers say: It's the federal government.

The United States has promised Morocco - one of California's main competitors - hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to stimulate agriculture in that country, including rehabilitating its more than 1 million acres of existing olive trees and planting 150,000 additional acres. This while California, the only state to commercially produce olives, has been battling Morocco and Spain for the black table-olive and olive-oil markets in this country for more than a decade, local growers said.

"We're struggling to survive, only to find out that our own country is subsidizing the very place that could put us out of business," said Dennis Burreson, who with his three sons has 500 acres of Manzanillo and Sevillano table-olive trees in Orland (Glenn County). He hopes that his grandchildren will someday run the farm, but worries that California olive growers could be a dying breed.

By now, his trees should be weighed down with fruit. But spring rains and winds destroyed much of California's olive crop this year; the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts the harvest will be down 67 percent. Although olive trees are alternate-bearing, that is, they yield a robust harvest only every other year, this will be one of the worst years for growers in recent history, said Adin Hester, president of the Olive Growers Council of California.

As Burreson walked through his Orland groves recently, he wondered whether the cost of picking the fruit was even worth it. But if he leaves it on the trees to rot, it might attract the dreaded olive fruit fly, which could be lethal. In the meantime, an abundance of highly subsidized and lower-priced olives and oil are being imported and inundating the U.S. market, he said.

Burreson knows that life as a farmer is never easy, but he said he never thought his own country would work against him.

Foreign aid

In 2004, Congress created the Millennium Challenge Corp., a foreign aid agency headed by the secretary of state, to help developing countries reduce poverty. Since its inception, the agency has authorized grants totaling more than $7 billion to help 23 African and Latin American countries.

In 2007 the agency agreed to give Morocco $697.5 million over five years to improve the country's employment rate and salaries by investing in its fruit-tree farms, small-scale fisheries and artisan crafts, according to Millennium. Nearly half of that money - $320 million - is earmarked for the Fruit Tree Productivity Project, with 80 percent of the cash going to olives and the rest to improve date, fig and almond production. Dates, figs and almonds are also key California crops.

Patrick Fine, who oversees such agreements as Millennium's vice president of compact operations, said he does not believe that the investment in Morocco will harm California producers. The project, he said, is designed to help poor rural families increase their incomes and to help develop a strong ally in an important region in the world.

Not meeting demand

"I sympathize with the point of view of the California olive growers," Fine said, adding that Millennium did research to determine whether the compact with Morocco would adversely affect growers here and found that California table olives were meeting only 50 percent of U.S. demand, and local olive oil only 2 percent. "We never want (Millennium's) investments to compete with America."

Furthermore, he said, Morocco's new trees won't start producing at a commercial level for another two to three years. And when they do, the fruit will be used for olive oil and sold to Spain and other European countries, he said.


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SRC: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/09/17/MNTA1KSF5N.DTL#ixzz1YSRF8bIF


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