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California citrus exports hurt by West Coast labor dispute

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    Container ships wait at the dock to be unloaded at the Port of Oakland Thursday

FRESNO, Calif. >> California’s citrus growers already grappling with a fourth year of drought say their exports are taking a hit from a labor dispute at West Coast seaports, costing farmers millions of dollars a week.

Al Bates, president of Sun Pacific Shippers and Farming, told the San Francisco Chronicle that growers like him are exporting half of their normal fruit produce to places such as Korea, Japan and China. A leading grower of citrus in the Central Valley, Bates blames the ongoing disputes at the seaports for crippling the flow of his goods.

"You shouldn’t be able to hold an industry hostage," Bates said. "There’s got to be some way that we can continue to operate while they negotiate."

The labor dispute has impacted 29 seaports along the West Coast, including Long Beach, Los Angeles and Oakland. The White House said on Saturday that President Barack Obama is sending Labor Secretary Tom Perez to California in an attempt to reach a deal at the bargaining table. The concern is that the slow movement of goods through the seaports will have broad economic damage.

Citrus growers in California who generate nearly $1 billion a year are hit especially hard because they are entering their peak season, and unlike auto parts and non-perishable goods caught in the labor dispute, oranges and other citrus products spoil if they sit too long.

Bates said his company is losing $3 million a week, which stings during the drought when export profits are needed to compensate for the high price of irrigation water.

While farmers are hurt by the loss of export sales, Bates said the labor dispute has left an abundance of fruit available to Americans consumers at lower prices. He estimates the port stalemate will cost the citrus growers by up to 40 percent of the normal profits.

U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both of California, wrote a joint letter this past week demanding an agreement that puts the ports back in business. "Clearly the ramifications of this slowdown are hurting the California economy and our households, small businesses and communities," the pair wrote. "This is unacceptable."

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