A decision by Sherman Oaks-based Sunkist Growers Association to market Argentine-grown lemons in the U.S. has some member growers questioning the coop’s move and arguing it could seriously harm local farmers. Growers in Ventura County, one of the state’s largest lemon producers, have been quietly rumbling that Sunkist’s move could flood the market, lowering lemon prices. “The fact is, they’re coming in,” said Sunkist spokeswoman Claire Peters. “As a marketer, this is the best way to benefit our members.” Peters said Sunkist growers will share in any profits the coop makes from the marketing of Argentina lemons. Sunkist doesn’t have estimates yet on how much money that would mean for growers. Sunkist signed an agreement to market 400,000 cartons of Argentine lemons for two of that country’s biggest grower-shippers, SA San Miguel and Cistrusvil SA. The decision follows a ruling in June by the USDA allowing Argentine growers to sell fruit in the U.S. Argentina is the largest lemon producer in the world, but has up to this point been barred from the U.S. market because of concerns that its fruit could spread disease to domestic citrus. Coinciding with Sunkist’s move is a lawsuit filed by California growers, many of them Sunkist members, challenging the USDA’s decision to allow Argentine lemons. The growers are represented by the Ventura County-based U.S. Citrus Science Council, whose suit claims Argentine growers are not taking steps required by the USDA to eradicate citrus disease and fruit flies that could spread to U.S. farms if the lemons are imported. “The USDA is suggesting you can bring in disease-free fruit from a diseased area,” said Joel Nelsen, vice chairman of the Citrus Council. “We believe they’re taking insufficient steps to protect citrus fruit production (in the U.S.).” The first Argentine lemons arrived in Philadelphia in mid-August. Sales of the produce will be limited to 34 states. The five U.S. citrus-producing states California, Arizona, Texas, Florida and Louisiana will not get Argentine fruit until 2004. That will give the government a chance to test the fruit for disease without spreading it to domestic citrus growers. The Argentine lemons represent a small fraction of the 20 million cartons Sunkist markets for its 6,500 growers in California and Arizona. Lemons were Ventura County’s largest crop until 1999, when strawberries knocked it out of the top slot. In 1999, the Ventura County lemon industry accounted for $201.6 million, said Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Dave Buettner. Grower reaction to Sunkist’s decision has been mixed, Buettner said. “In the long run, someone is going to sell those lemons, whether it’s Sunkist or some other organization,” Buettner said. “Sunkist can at least govern where it goes.” Lemon prices were higher last year than in previous years, Buettner said.