(April 22) VISALIA, Calif. — The Central California Citrus Growers Association continues its six-month state of limbo waiting for a Justice Department review before proceeding with its mission of addressing grower returns.

Two California cooperatives and several packinghouses representing up to 80% of the citrus grown in the state in November formed the cooperative — at least on paper — by filing papers with the California Secretary of State.

Like other agricultural cooperatives established under the Capper-Volstead Act of 1922, the California Citrus Growers Association is designed to allow grower members to share production, price and marketing information on navels and valencias without antitrust violations. Growers affiliated with Sunkist Growers Inc., Sherman Oaks, and the Central California Orange Growers Cooperative, Lindsay, are members, as well as those represented by Bee Sweet Citrus Inc., Fowler, and Sun Pacific Shippers, Los Angeles.

CONCERN AT SUNKIST

The cooperative-within-a-cooperative structure caused concern at Sunkist, said Mike Wootton, vice president of corporate relations, and Sunkist representatives asked for the Justice Department approval.

“There has been no discussion, no exchange of information or collaboration,” Wootton said, adding that there won’t be until the group receives a business review from the department.

The Justice Department, busy with the Microsoft antitrust case, hasn’t responded since the group requested the review in late November. California Citrus Growers Association secretary-treasurer and Central California Orange Growers president Dawn Gray said no objections are expected.

“This is significant, and we wanted to do it right,” Gray said. “We’re not anticipating any challenges from the government or anything else, but we said, ‘Let’s make sure we’re doing it right and ask for a review.’ ”

Calls to the Justice Department’s office of public affairs in mid-April yielded no information on the cooperative’s request.

MUTUAL NOT AFFILIATED

California Citrus Mutual, Exeter, was instrumental in forming the cooperative, but the mutual is not affiliated with it. California Citrus Mutual chairman Bill Ferry said the group’s genesis came from an annual growers’ trip to the California Legislature in Sacramento.

“We had meetings with growers throughout the valley,” Ferry said. “We got together and talked about problems we were having, and basically they were price problems. The one thing we could do in a short time was get a cooperative going.”

California Citrus Mutual president Joel Nelsen declined to comment on the cooperative, as did California Citrus Growers Association chairman Berne Evans, president of Sun Pacific Shippers.

“We’re not in a position to discuss anything about the (California Citrus Growers Association),” Evans said. “The attorneys have advised us not to say anything.”

Orange growers and California Citrus Mutual have addressed the need to establish floor prices for oranges in recent years as imports and increased production costs have reduced profits. Gray said the cooperative also will share information among growers, much as Sunkist and the Central California Orange Growers Cooperative already do.