TIMBO VIEJO, Argentina – President Donald Trump appears to have soured on Argentine lemons — at least on his predecessor's decision to end a 16-year ban on imports of the fruit.
In December, President Barack Obama's administration said it would lift the ban on Argentine lemons, which had been imposed following complaints by producers in California that they carried diseases.
But a month later Trump's administration issued a 60-day stay on the decision. That stay was recently extended for two more months, stalling the return of imports from one of the world's top producers of the fruit.
Lemons will be a top trade talking point when Trump welcomes Argentine President Mauricio Macri in Washington on April 27, with growers in the South American country saying the ban is more about Trump protectionism than sanitary standards.
The two leaders have a personal relationship from their days as businessmen, which the center-right Macri hopes to leverage to bolster Argentina's relationship with the U.S. after years of anti-American posturing by his left-leaning predecessor, Cristina Fernandez.
The 2001 ruling by a California court banning Argentine lemons imports did not block the entry of its lemon derivatives, including oil and juice, and exports to the U.S. and other international markets totaled about $800 million last year.
The U.S. government decided to lift the ban a month before Obama left office as a sign of goodwill to Macri, who had reached out to Washington.
But that didn't sit well with many California producers.
"The Argentines have a problem as far as we are concerned with citrus black spot," Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, told The Associated Press about the disease that affects the crops and stains the fruit's peel.
"The main reason we're against it is a pest and disease issue," Nelsen said. "The California citrus industry is the sole source of fresh citrus for the U.S. Florida is dying because of a disease. Texas is dying. And we're fighting hard against disease in California."
Argentine farmers say they have complied with all the regulations and deny there are any sanitary problems with their fruit.
Instead, they point to Trump's promise to buy and hire American in his inaugural speech. He has also vowed to impose punitive tariffs on goods from countries that he thinks harm American workers by flouting trade rules.
"They have an animosity toward our product," said Jose Carbonell, the president of the Federcitrus Argentine Citrus chamber. "This is not a technical or a commercial issue."
Argentina produces about 1.5 million metric tons of lemons a year, of which 95 percent are exported. Its main market is the European Union and its top growing region is located in Tucuman, about 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) north of Buenos Aires. It's Argentina's second-smallest province but the source of about 80 percent of its production
The constant rain and frost-free conditions have turned the town of Timbo Viejo, on the outskirts of Tucuman's capital, into a hub for Argentine lemons.
Augusto Battig, who manages farms owned by the Fruta Citrica SRL, one of Tucuman's top-producing companies, said "we've been working for many years and with lots of effort" to meet the conditions the U.S. is demanding.
Lemons harvested between February and May undergo a pre-wash using sodium bicarbonate and other products. They are then separated according to quality and color and packed by hand in crates for their sale.
"I think we're up to the situation and can meet all standards," Battig said.
Bernardo Piazzardi, a professor at the Agribusiness and Food Center at Argentina's Austral University, said the EU allows imports of Argentine lemons and it "never hesitates to put barriers up if there is a plague or disease."
But Nelson of the California citrus producers said the Obama administration's decision to lift the ban was done quickly to satisfy a political agenda and "we're not going to be a trading chip."
"The President campaigned on a platform of protecting American industries from trade negotiations that create unnecessary vulnerabilities for domestic production, business, and jobs," he said. "The President's swift action in regard to the Argentine lemon rule is a clear signal that he intends to keep his campaign promise."
Associated Press writer Luis Andres Henao contributed to this report.