Category Archives: Business

economy and business news

China Short of Natural Gas as it Pushes Away Polluting Coal

Severe natural gas shortages are hitting businesses and residents across China’s industrial heartland as an unprecedented government effort to clean up an environment devastated by decades of unbridled growth backfires.

Factories are closing or operating at reduced capacity, business profits are shrinking as supply chains are disrupted, and people are shivering through subzero temperatures without adequate heating at home, according to interviews conducted across the region last week.

The gas shortages, which have sent prices soaring nationwide, have undermined a sweeping campaign to switch millions of households and thousands of businesses from coal to natural gas in north China this winter, part of long-running efforts to clean the region’s toxic air.

Much of the gasification of the region, involving more than 4 million homes, was rapidly launched by local authorities acting on their own initiatives in response to calls by the central government to control air pollution.

But the plan appears to have been overly ambitious.

Despite the installation of gas lines and boilers for factories and homes across the northeast, supply has been hampered by insufficient infrastructure to bring the fuel to the industrial region and store it, according to Liang Jin, an independent analyst previously with the oil and gas consultancy JLC.

And in some areas, many homes have yet to get the gas boilers needed for heating.

The gas plan was also implemented as China tries this winter to reduce production from polluting industries like steel and cut back on the use of diesel trucks. That has raised concerns about whether the anti-pollution campaigns may hit economic growth.

​Hebei not ready

Interviews with business owners, families, utilities and gas producers in Hebei province highlighted the problem and suggested that many cities were unprepared to cope. Hebei is adjacent to Beijing, and its factories are often blamed for much of the pollution that often cloaks the capital in the winter.

Xue Huabing, who owns a small floor-tile factory in rural Hebei, said compliance with the new environmental standards means he has only been able to operate for four months this year.

After moving from coal to natural gas and reopening in September, the factory halted production again in October as gas prices soared.

“The price of gas is 6-7 yuan per cubic meter, up from 2 yuan last year,” Xue told Reuters by phone. “If we open, we are going to run at a loss.” He added that it was also difficult for him to secure gas supplies.

Gas prices up

Domestic liquefied natural gas prices have jumped more than 70 percent since mid-November, hitting record highs above 8,000 yuan per ton this month, according to market.yeslng.com, an online exchange for domestic gas supplies.

High prices are raising production costs in industrial cities like Baoding and Shijiazhuang in Hebei province, with knock-on effects for retailers and wholesalers downstream, business owners said.

The gas shortages are also now being felt in southern China, where local governments are sounding the alarm, and some companies are closing down or slowing production.

Growth is hurting

“I think there already has been an impact from the campaign on growth,” said Julian Evans-Pritchard, an economist at Capital Economics in Singapore, referring to the anti-pollution drive. “We saw quite a sharp slowdown in October data.”

At Zheng Wenmin’s shop selling kitchen fixtures in Shijiazhuang, a city of 10 million and Hebei’s capital, business is down more than 20 percent this year. Disruptions to housing construction, which has slowed amid the crackdown on pollution, mean fewer people are decorating new homes, she said.

“The prices we pay our suppliers are much higher, and the supply is unstable because factories are shut down or have to cut production,” Zheng said.

China could lose nearly half a percentage point of gross domestic product growth this winter if it sticks to its pollution-reduction targets, Capital Economics has estimated.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they start getting worried” about slowing growth soon, said Evans-Pritchard.

Signs of a slowdown are being seen. Shijiazhuang’s economy expanded 7.1 percent in the first nine months of the year, slowing from 7.8 percent over the same period last year, city government data showed.

Heavy industrial output contracted 2.4 percent year-on-year in the first ten months of the year, which compared with 4.5 percent growth in 2016.

The Shijiazhuang city government, Hebei provincial government, and the Ministry of Environmental Protection did not respond to requests for comment. The Hebei Development and Reform Commission declined to comment.

​Pipelines, storage needed

Most of China’s gas is produced offshore and in the far west of the country. Getting enough gas to the industrial northeast to meet surging demand is a major challenge because of a shortage of pipelines, as well as facilities that would allow the storage of fuel in the summer for use in winter.

To address the shortages the government is speeding up the construction of a pipeline bringing gas from Russia, according to state media reports.

“I don’t think the government can fix the problem within the next three to five years,” said Liang, the gas analyst. “For this year, the Hebei government is facing a supply shortage of 2 billion cubic meters.”

​A cold winter

Residents in Hebei are also bracing for a colder winter, with temperatures forecast to plunge deeper below zero.

In a dusty village on the outskirts of Baoding, Zhang Xu, 31, said her two young sons were getting sick more often this winter from sleeping in their cold bedroom.

“My older son is always asking me why it is so cold in the house, and all I can do is put them in sweaters,” Zhang said.

New bright yellow gas pipelines installed by the local government snake conspicuously through Zhang’s village. But in most homes, like Zhang’s, the government has not yet installed gas boilers, and some residents said they had been secretly burning coal left from last winter to keep themselves warm.

Facing the reality that many people in the northeast did not have gas heating, the Ministry of Environmental Protection recently reversed course and said residents could temporarily burn coal.

Despite the upheaval, most residents and businesses interviewed said they believed something had to be done about pollution, but took issue with how measures were being implemented.

“The skies are blue, but it’s the common people that have to pay the price,” said Zheng, the shopowner.

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Documents: Odebrecht Paid Firms Linked to Peru’s President

Brazilian builder Odebrecht transferred $4.8 million to companies linked to Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski between 2004 and 2012, some of which was paid to a company Kuczynski controlled when he held senior government roles, according to a document the company sent to Congress.

In a brief recorded message broadcast on local radio program RPP after lawmakers made the contents of the document public on Wednesday, Kuczynski denied wrongdoing but did not deny the transfers took place.

Kuczynski’s office declined further comment.

Odebrecht declined to comment. A source in the company who spoke on condition of anonymity said the document seen by Reuters was authentic.

​Documents contradict denials

The transfers shown in the document contradicted Kuczynski’s previous denials about his ties to Odebrecht and prompted some lawmakers in the opposition-controlled Congress to call for his resignation.

Odebrecht is at the center of Latin America’s biggest graft scandal and has admitted to paying about $30 million in bribes to officials in Peru over a decade, including during the 2001-2006 term of ex-President Alejandro Toledo, when Kuczynski was finance minister and prime minister.

After Odebrecht’s public acknowledgement a year ago, Kuczynski repeatedly denied ever taking money from Odebrecht or having any professional connections to the company.

But on Saturday Kuczynski announced on a local radio program that he once worked as a financial adviser for an Odebrecht project when he did not hold public office; he did not mention the company that paid him.

‘I have nothing to hide’

According to the document sent to Congress, Odebrecht made seven transfers totaling about $780,000 to Kuczynski’s company Westfield Capital Ltd between 2004 and 2007, including about $60,000 when Kuczynski worked in Toledo’s Cabinet and the government awarded several contracts to Odebrecht. Later, between 2008 and 2012, Odebrecht paid about $4 million to First Capital Inversiones Y Asesorias.

Kuczynski has previously said that First Capital belongs to his friend and Chilean business partner, Gerardo Sepulveda.

Kuczynski was the sole director of Westfield Capital, according to his sworn declaration on the presidency’s website.

Kuczynski has not appeared in public since his radio interview on Saturday. He said on RPP on Wednesday that he had decided to heed Congress’ repeated calls to explain any connections he had with Odebrecht to an investigative committee.

“I’ve never favored any company. I’m willing to clarify everything that needs to be clarified before Congress and prosecutors because I have nothing to hide,” Kuczynski said on RPP, without taking any questions from journalists.

Opposition calls for resignation

A spokesman for Popular Force, the opposition party that holds a majority of seats in Peru’s single-chamber Congress, slammed Kuczynski.

“The country, Mr. Kuczynski, is tired of your lies and doesn’t want any more explanations. The country hasn’t just lost its trust in you, but in your government as well,” Daniel Salaverry, the spokesman, told a news conference.

In a televised plenary session late on Wednesday, hard-line Popular Force lawmaker Hector Becerril called for Kuczynski to resign, calling the transferred funds “camouflaged bribes.” An independent lawmaker also called for Kuczynski to step down.

A source in the attorney general’s office said prosecutors investigating Odebrecht in Peru were probing Kuczynski’s relationship with the company but could not name him as a suspect until his term and presidential immunity end.

Toledo, the former president under whom Kuczynski worked, has been accused of taking a $20 million bribe from Odebrecht in exchange for help in securing lucrative highway contracts.

Toledo has denied the charges. Authorities in Peru are seeking his extradition from the United States.

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Anti-pipeline Group Goes Back to Work Against Keystone XL

Nebraska’s main anti-pipeline group is trying to rally opposition to the TransCanada Corp’s Keystone XL project’s recently approved route through the state, tracking down landowners it says were not given a voice in the regulatory process.

If it succeeds, Bold Nebraska could throw up new roadblocks to the controversial project to move Canadian oil to U.S. refineries, backed by U.S. President Donald Trump, by pressing regulators to revisit TransCanada’s application, or by suing if they refuse.

The Nebraska Public Service Commission issued an approval for Keystone XL to pass through the state in late November, removing the last big regulatory obstacle for the long-delayed project. But the commission’s approval was not for the route TransCanada had singled out in its application, but for an alternative that shifts it closer to an existing pipeline right-of-way that affects scores of new landowners.

Bold Nebraska 

Jane Kleeb, the head of Bold Nebraska, which has been fighting the pipeline for years, held the first of a series of meetings with these new landowners Wednesday.

“We hope to begin the education process with landowners so they understand this is a lifetime easement for a one-time payment,” she told Reuters. “We aim to engage at least 20 percent of the new landowners in the legal landowner group.” 

About 75 landowners and other citizens crammed the meeting in the community center in the small college town of Seward to meet with Kleeb and other pipeline opponents.

Lee Gloystein said he was not happy upon learning that the approved route would go thought his family’s farm. “It’s been in our family since the 1800s,” he said. “And we don’t want it to be disturbed or the water to be disturbed.”

Bold Nebraska already has about 100 landowners who live along the pipeline’s original proposed route signed up against Keystone XL. They include a number of ranchers and farmers worried that spills could pollute their land and the massive Ogallala Aquifer, a source of drinking water and irrigation for a large swath of the central United States.

Jim Carlson, a landowner whose Holt County farm is on the original Keystone XL route, told those at Wednesday’s meeting that he initially was happy the route would cross his land because he could profit from selling TransCanada an easement. But he said he changed his mind after studying the potential environmental harm from a spill. “Be careful what you wish for,” he said.

​Controversial pipeline

The project has been a lightning rod of controversy since it was proposed a decade ago, with environmentalists making it a symbol of their broader fight against fossil fuels and global warming.

TransCanada says the pipeline would be good for the economy and could be run safely. The company said it had about 90 percent support among landowners for the proposed route, but had not yet negotiated support along the approved route.

TransCanada would need to use eminent domain law to gain access to land for which it could not reach an agreement.

Demonstrating opposition along the approved route could add heft to anti-pipeline efforts. Lawyers for opponents of the line argued at a hearing Tuesday that Nebraska regulators had no authority to approve the “alternative” path, and was only allowed to rule on the proposed route.

TransCanada seeks to head off challenges

TransCanada, meanwhile, requested that the public service commission allow it to amend its application retroactively to head off legal challenges. The commission is considering TransCanada’s request.

Trump handed TransCanada a federal permit for the 1,180-mile (1,899-km) pipeline in March, reversing a decision by former President Barack Obama in 2015 to block it on environmental grounds.

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US, EU, Japan Slam Market Distortion in Swipe at China

The United States, European Union and Japan vowed Tuesday to work together to fight market-distorting trade practices and policies that have fueled excess production capacity, naming several key features of China’s economic system.

In a joint statement that did not single out China or any other country, the three economic powers said they would work within the World Trade Organization and other multilateral groups to eliminate unfair competitive conditions caused by subsidies, state-owned enterprises, “forced” technology transfer and local content requirements.

The move was a rare show of solidarity with the United States at a World Trade Organization meeting dominated by differences over U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” trade agenda and U.S. efforts to stall the appointment of WTO judges.

It reflected growing frustration among industrial countries over China’s trade practices, along with concerns that other developing countries will follow Beijing’s lead.

The statement said protectionist practices “are serious concerns for the proper functioning of international trade, the creation of innovative technologies and the sustainable growth of the global economy.”

EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said China’s industry subsidies, including for aluminum and steel, were flooding global markets and hurting European workers in a “very, very dramatic” way.

“There’s no secret that we think that China is a big sinner here, but there are other countries that are as well,” Malmstrom told reporters on the sidelines of a business forum.

In the opening session of the WTO ministerial conference in Buenos Aires on Monday, the United States and Japan criticized a lack of transparency in some WTO members’ trade practices, a thinly veiled swipe at Beijing.

China, meanwhile, appealed for members to “join hands” and uphold WTO rules to protect globalization in the face of rising protectionism.

The joint statement came after Japan approached the European Union and the United States about overcapacity, according to an EU source, with both Tokyo and Brussels concerned about the possibility the Trump administration could act unilaterally.

“There is a thought that if we bring them into the fold, and can work jointly with them, then it reduces the risk of them going alone,” the source said.

​’Playing by the rules’

Washington, Brussels and Tokyo have previously raised complaints about China’s excess production capacity in a number of industrial sectors that has pushed down world prices and caused layoffs elsewhere.

The United States recently sided with the EU in arguing that such distortions mean the WTO should not grant China market economy status, a move that would severely weaken their trade defenses.

“We have been … reaching out to China to tell them they really must start playing by the rules,” Malmstrom told reporters.

The EU’s and Japan’s willingness to cooperate with the Trump administration comes despite disagreements over the role of the WTO and the future of multilateral trade deals. 

Trump has expressed his preference for bilateral negotiations, and his trade rhetoric has cast a cloud over the WTO meeting.

Efforts on Tuesday to make progress on a ministerial statement from all 164 WTO members were unsuccessful, since one country could not agree on the language, WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell told reporters, declining to name that country.

U.S. officials last month blocked WTO efforts to draft a statement of unity over the “centrality” of the global trading system and the need to aid development.

A spokeswoman for the office of the U.S. trade representative could not be immediately reached for comment.

The Trump administration is considering several unilateral tariff actions on steel, aluminum and China’s intellectual property practices that are likely to draw disputes from WTO members.

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Afreximbank Pledges Up to $1.5B to Post-Mugabe Zimbabwe

The African Export and Import Bank has pledged up to $1.5 billion in new loans and financial guarantees to Zimbabwe in a major boost for new President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government, the bank’s president and chairman said Tuesday.

Mnangagwa, who took over last month after veteran autocrat Robert Mugabe quit following a de facto military coup, has vowed to focus on reviving the struggling economy and provide jobs in a nation with an unemployment rate exceeding 80 percent.

Afreximbank was the only international lender that stood by Zimbabwe throughout Mugabe’s repressive 37-year rule, but its quick announcement of a fresh package of loans and guarantees appeared to be a vote of confidence in the new government.

Cairo-based Afreximbank was a major funder of Zimbabwe while the country was cut off from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank for having defaulted on its debt in 1999.

Bank president and chairman Okey Oramah told reporters after a meeting with Mnangagwa and senior government officials that Afreximbank would provide $150 million to local banks to help them pay for outstanding critical imports.

“We also discussed a number of other areas that involve additional investment from us for something that will be in the order of $1 billion to $1.5 billion that will include certain kinds of guarantees to encourage investors to come to Zimbabwe.

“We … want to make sure that we support the stabilization of the economy, that means providing liquidity to make sure that the situation where people are rushing every time to look for cash is dealt with,” Oramah said.

In August, before Mugabe’s ouster, Afreximbank provided $600 million to help Zimbabwe pay for imports and $300 million to allow it to print more “bond notes,” a quasi-currency that officially trades on par with the U.S. dollar.

Zimbabwe has a foreign debt of more than $7 billion and in September said it would not be able to pay $1.8 billion in arrears to the World Bank and African Development Bank until economic fundamentals improved.

The southern African nation, which dumped its hyperinflation-hit currency in 2009, is struggling with a severe dollar crunch that has seen banks fail to avail cash to customers while importers struggle to pay for imports.

Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa promised in a budget speech last week to re-engage with international lenders, curb spending and attract investors to revive the economy.

On Tuesday, Chinamasa described Afreximbank as a “pillar of strength” and said the economy was “in for some very good times.”

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Filipino Houses From Debris, Californian Fruit Pickers’ Homes Win Major Award

A project in the Philippines that used debris to rebuild typhoon-ravaged houses and Californian homes providing year-round housing for migrant workers won one of the world’s most prestigious housing awards on Tuesday.

The development charity CARE used innovative techniques, such as teaching building skills to residents and using wreckage from destroyed homes, to rehouse more than 15,000 Filipino families devastated in 2013 by Typhoon Haiyan.

“This is the first time self-recovery has been used on such a large scale,” said David Ireland, director of British charity World Habitat, which co-hosts the World Habitat Awards together with the United Nations (U.N.) settlement program, UN-Habitat.

“It has helped more people, more quickly, than traditional disaster recovery programs. The potential of this approach to be used elsewhere is absolutely huge.”

The winners of the competition, which was established in 1985, received 10,000 pounds and opportunities to share their ideas around the world.

The second winner was Mutual Housing, a not-for-profit affordable housing developer in Yolo County in northern California, which built the first permanent year-round homes for seasonal fruit and vegetable pickers.

Tens of thousands of workers are brought in from Central America at harvest time to do low-wage jobs, often living in sub-standard houses in government-funded migrant centers.

“It has been a complete 180 degree turn since we’ve been living here,” said Saul Menses, who moved into one of Mutual Housing’s 62 apartments and houses in Spring Lake, some 60 miles (97 km) northeast of San Francisco, in 2015.

“For five years, we lived in an apartment there that was very cold and in poor condition. My wife had to board the windows up with tape and unclog the sink daily.”

The Spring Lake houses are the United States’ first certified zero-energy rental homes, meaning they consume less energy than they produce, using solar power, efficient lights and drought-resistant landscaping.

Seasonal work also disrupts family life for the estimated 6,000 migrants who come to Yolo County for the harvest, making it difficult for children to stay in one school. The new houses are less than 1 km from a secondary school and other services.

“Seasonal agricultural laborers are one of the most marginalized groups in the USA,” said World Habitat’s Ireland. “Mutual Housing California have managed to help a group not normally reached and proven that you don’t have to be a homeowner or on a high income to embrace green lifestyles.”

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Traders Brace for Launch of Bitcoin Futures Market

The newest way to bet on bitcoin, the cyptocurrency that has taken Wall Street by storm with its stratospheric price rise and wild daily gyrations, will arrive Sunday when bitcoin futures start trading.

The launch has given an extra kick to the cyptocurrency’s scorching run this year. It has nearly doubled in price since the start of December, but recent days saw sharp moves in both directions, with bitcoin losing almost a fifth of its value Friday after surging more than 40 percent in the previous 48 hours.

But while some market participants are excited about a regulated way to bet on or hedge against moves in bitcoin, others caution that risks remain for investors and possibly even the clearing organizations underpinning the trades.

The futures are cash-settled contracts based on the auction price of bitcoin in U.S. dollars on the Gemini Exchange, owned and operated by virtual currency entrepreneurs Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss.

A regulated bitcoin product

“The pretty sharp rise we have seen in bitcoin in just the last couple of weeks has probably been driven by optimism ahead of the futures launch,” said Randy Frederick, vice president of trading and derivatives for Charles Schwab in Austin.

Bitcoin fans appear excited about the prospect of an exchange-listed and regulated product and the ability to bet on its price swings without having to sign up for a digital wallet.

The futures are an alternative to a largely unregulated spot market underpinned by cryptocurrency exchanges that have been plagued by cybersecurity and fraud issues.

“You are going to open up the market to a whole lot of people who aren’t currently in bitcoin,” Frederick said.

Mixed reception in US

The futures launch has so far received a mixed reception from big U.S. banks and brokerages.

Interactive Brokers plans to offer its customers access to the first bitcoin futures when trading goes live, but bars clients from assuming short positions and has margin requirements of at least 50 percent.

Several online brokerages including Charles Schwab and TD Ameritrade will not allow the trading of the newly launched futures.

Some of the big U.S. banks including JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup, will not immediately clear bitcoin trades for clients, the Financial Times reported on Friday.

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Argentina Blocks Two Activists From Entry on Eve of WTO Meeting

Argentina blocked two European activists from entering the country on the eve of the World Trade Organization’s ministerial meeting in Buenos Aires, the two told a local radio program Saturday.

Sally Burch, a British activist and journalist for the Latin American Information Agency, said Argentina had already revoked credentials given to her by the WTO to attend the meeting but thought she would be able to enter the country as a tourist.

“They found my name on a list and started asking questions … supposedly I was a false tourist,” Burch said on Radio 10.

“It’s not very democratic of Argentina’s government.”

Petter Titland, spokesman for the Norweigan NGO Attac Norge, said authorities denied him entry without explaining why.

Late last month, Argentina rescinded the credentials of 60 activists who had been accredited by the WTO to attend the meeting because it determined they would be “more disruptive than constructive.”

WTO meetings often attract protests by anti-globalization groups, but they have remained largely peaceful since riots broke out at the 1999 meeting in Seattle.

WTO’s spokesman, Keith Rockwell, reiterated on Saturday that it disagreed with Argentina’s decision to revoke activists’ credentials. “We didn’t have the same perspective but we’re now moving on,” Rockwell told journalists.

Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri has promoted business-friendly policies since taking office in December 2015, and Argentina will host global events as chair of the G-20 group of major economies next year.

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Wind, Fire, Ash Destroy Much of California Avocado Crop

The wildfire that roared through the orchards of California’s Ventura County destroyed much of the region’s avocado crop not just with flames, but also with fierce Santa Ana winds and a thick blanket of ash.

With the so-called Thomas Fire just 10 percent contained by Friday afternoon, after blackening more than 132,000 acres across Ventura County and destroying some 400 homes and other structures, it is too soon to know the extent of the damage to the upcoming avocado harvest.

But experts say even the mostly family-owned orchards spared by the epic conflagration may have suffered devastating losses to their crops from the hot, dry Santa Ana winds that blow out of the California desert, knocking avocados from the trees with gusts up to 80 miles per hour. (129 kilometers per hour)

The fruit cannot be sold for human consumption once it is on the ground because of food safety regulations.

“A lot of that fruit everybody was looking forward to harvesting next year is laying on the ground,” said John Krist, chief executive of the Ventura County Farm Bureau.

​Vulnerable to the wind

Avocados are the rare produce trees planted in hillside groves because of their shallow roots, said Ben Faber, a University of California farm adviser in Ventura. The fruit, typically harvested in February or March, is full-sized and heavy by December, held by a long stem.

Those factors make avocados, already growing away from their natural environment in Central and South America, more vulnerable to the whipping winds than the lemon orchards dotting the flatlands of Ventura, Faber said.

Lemons are also a lighter fruit with a shorter, sturdier stem. Ventura County is California’s largest growing region for both lemons and avocados. The state produces about 90 percent of the nation’s avocado crop and 80 percent of its lemons.

Delayed impact

Some avocado trees that do not appear to have been scorched could also reveal damage later, collapsing from internal heat damage. Fruit that did not burn or get blown off the branches may be sunburned by the loss of canopy.

Both lemon and avocado crops are also likely to suffer further from the thick coating of ash left by the Thomas Fire, which interferes with the natural enemy insects that hunt the pests feeding on the fruit trees. Those enemy insects are known to growers as “bio-controls.”

“When you get all this ash, they can’t do their jobs,” Faber said of the enemy insects. “That’s going to cause a disruption to the bio controls that’s going to go on for a year or more. So the impact of the fires is not all immediate.”

Unlike grapes at wineries in California’s Napa Valley wine-growing region hit by wildfires in October, however, avocados and lemons will not be affected by smoke from the fires because of their thick skins.

Experts said at the time that the delicate grapes, if exposed to sustained heavy smoke, could be vulnerable to “smoke taint,” which can alter their taste and aroma.

Prices not likely to rise

Consumers are not expected to see an impact on avocado prices because Ventura County is only a small piece of the worldwide production chain dominated by Mexico and South America, the farm bureau’s Krist said.

Avocado prices have been higher in most U.S. markets during the second half of 2017, according to the Hass Avocado Board, in part because of a poor harvest last year in the United States and Mexico.

The wildfire news didn’t have a major effect on the stock price of the Limoneira Company, the nation’s largest avocado grower, as shares closed essentially unchanged on Friday.

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