The navel orange isn't about to go belly up, but it's being squeezed by the most unlikely kind of pressure, the federal Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980.
It wasn't supposed to happen this way, but the reporting forms used by the navel orange industry in California and Arizona to control the flow of fruit to market are caught in a . . . well, in a federal bureaucratic paperwork tangle.
The situation has raised the potential for chaos in the industry (and maybe even more and cheaper navel oranges for consumers), just as some 4,000 growers are harvesting one of the largest crops in recent times.
Navel oranges became juicy news a year ago when, under orders from the quasi-federal agency that governs the industry, growers withheld more than a third of a record 3.1 billion-pound crop from market. Mountains of oranges were fed to cattle, diverted to juice products or left to rot.
Consumerists' peals of protest in part led to a Reagan administration review of the regulatory system that limits marketing of 47 farm products, from citrus and milk to nuts and vegetables. After the review, Agriculture Secretary John R. Block ordered some changes in the navel orange program, ostensibly to stimulate competition.
This time around, the orange story is different. The crop is huge (2.2 billion pounds) but the Navel Orange Administrative Committee (NOAC) in Los Angeles, the cop of the citrus groves, is collecting its daily crop information on forms that do not have the required approval of the Office of Management and Budget.
Under terms of the 1980 law designed to reduce paperwork and cut red tape, OMB has final say on all forms used in connection with federal regulation. Forms not approved by last Dec. 31 were, in effect, not legal."I won't deny that it has been discussed, but I don't know if the orange marketing program becomes academic due to this," said OMB spokesman Edwin L. Dale Jr.
The delay came about when the Department of Agriculture got caught in the paper shuffle the law was supposed to eliminate. It didn't send the orange reporting forms to OMB until a few days before the deadline. OMB's Dale said the documents are under review but that final action--approval or disapproval--will not occur until USDA answers technical questions that have arisen.
USDA and NOAC minimize the delays, but at least two California growers, aware of the snafu, have stopped sending their daily shipping reports to NOAC, apparently at the risk of fines or sanctions for not abiding by the federal marketing order that regulates the industry.
One of the growers, Carl A. Pescosolido Jr. of Exeter, Calif., an outspoken critic of restraints imposed by the marketing order, said that since the forms being used by the NOAC do not have OMB approval, he did not feel compelled to continue reporting to the committee.
If other growers followed suit, NOAC's tight control over the industry would lessen and, in Pescosolido's view, "The entire system would break down as growers became aware of the problem. Practically speaking, I'd be free to market my oranges to whom I see fit, when I see fit."
"We already have received a tacit warning from NOAC . . . but we believe in what we're doing and we are acting on advice of counsel," he continued. Pescosolido declined to disclose whether he has shipped more navel oranges than he would ordinarily be authorized to do under the marketing order.
Billy J. Peightal, chief officer of the NOAC, said Friday that he was unaware of any delays at OMB. "I don't know about it," he said. "Where did you get that? Who told you? We haven't been advised of anything by USDA."
Peightal refused to discuss possible consequences of the paper tangle in Washington. Would the program collapse? Could NOAC police 4,000 growers? Would growers hold to their traditional shipping allocations?
"You're speculating and I'm not going to do that with you," he said. "We've got new forms ready and it would be nice if somebody approved them."
At USDA, one marketing-branch official said, "The committee requires reports from growers on their shipments. If there were no approved forms for income taxes, it might be a similar thing. How many people would comply?"
But another, Donald S. Kuryloski of the Agricultural Marketing Service, said the delay in approval "means nothing to the programs." He said USDA was "a couple months late" in sending OMB the forms for the navel orange and some other products under marketing orders.
Kuryloski said USDA missed its Oct. 1 deadline because "it became a massive project . . . a traditional bureaucratic case--it ends up costing the taxpayer more than it's supposed to save. It became a massive undertaking."