Sacramento Airports Could Benefit From Produce Exports

Aug. 10--Air exports of produce from California jumped more than 60 percent in four years to $669 million in 2004.

But Fresno Yosemite International Airport, in the center of the state's agricultural heartland, is less likely to become a take-off point for those products than airports in Sacramento and inland Southern California, according to authors of a report from the Center for Agricultural Business at California State University, Fresno.

"The Role of Air Cargo in California's Agricultural Export Trade" looks at what has become a means of transport with special appeal to producers of high-value specialty crops, such as cherries, asparagus, strawberries and organic fruits and vegetables.

The 200-page report forecasts continued growth in airborne food exports because of rising worldwide demand for the perishable fruits and vegetables. It says access by air to distant markets should become easier within a decade as more international airport services move from Los Angeles and San Francisco international airports.

"Globalization is bringing increased affluence, and cities in developing countries harbor fairly substantial markets," said Jock O'Connell, an international trade consultant with The Clarkstreet Group in Sacramento.

O'Connell wrote the report, along with Bert Mason, a professor and interim chair of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Fresno State, and John Hagen, professor emeritus with the department.

The report can be accessed on the Internet at cati.csufresno.edu/cab.

"We forecast, for largely demographic reasons, air cargo will move through population and industrial centers, places with the kind of industry demanding air cargo services," O'Connell said. Those hubs will need infrastructure, from insurance carriers to trucking firms.

He added that Sacramento International Airport, Mather Field in Sacramento, Oakland International Airport, Ontario International Airport and the former March Air Force Base in Riverside Countye likely to become air cargo alternatives to the two principal gateways today in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Mason said the Fresno airport is not yet poised to step into the agricultural cargo picture because it lacks direct foreign flights, and "much of the air cargo for ag goes into the bellies of passenger planes."

April is the earliest that the first direct international flights -- aboard Mexicana Airlines -- would leave Fresno Yosemite International, with service to Mexico. Most produce travels by truck to Canada or Mexico.

Chief foreign markets for airborne agricultural products include the Pacific Rim and European Union.

Russ Widmar, Fresno's director of aviation, said the city needs to get Mexicana "under our belt before we think of other places."

Busy with Mexicana, budget issues and upgrading of Chandler Airport, Widmar said he did not have time to read the full report and declined comment after reading a synopsis.

"I don't know the cargo market here," Widmar said. "I want to study it. I want to talk with practitioners, those in the cargo industry. I want smart people focused on cargo, a very specific study of cargo potential in Fresno."

Widmar said he has never -- in previous top jobs at airports in Salt Lake City and Kansas City, Mo. -- seen the extent of agriculture he has encountered in the Valley.

"It's huge," he said. "If experts say there is no market, I would be surprised."

Hanford grower and packer Bill Warmerdam is among those who flies cherries to destinations that include Japan because of the premium prices he can get. He said the cherries are picked, fumigated overnight, packed the next morning and on a truck by noon to the airport in San Francisco.

Within 24 hours of packing, the cherries could arrive at a distribution point in Japan.

Louis Benedetti, a salesman with Delta Packing Co. in Lodi, said 95 percent of cherries that are exported go by air. This year, almost 800,000 cartons went to Japan.

"The challenges include timing, getting them picked, packed and making the airport in time," Benedetti said. "With bioterrorism threats, the airlines are more stringent on receiving the fruit, and there is more congestion on freeways."

The report notes some growers are "nervous about the risks of disease or pest infestation that return [international] flights might bring." Mexicana encountered considerable resistance from the agricultural community, for example, before getting assurances there would be adequate safeguards against pests.

The percentage of farm exports transported by air remains small compared with other transportation modes. In 2004, for example, airborne shipments amounted to just 6.4 percent of the $10.4 billion value of all agricultural products exported from California.

Among the most striking statistics in the report is the surge in airborne shipments of the state's agricultural products to China since it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.

Over the next three years, the state's airborne agricultural exports to China soared from $3.1 million in 2001 to $94.4 million last year, a thirtyfold increase.

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