Most Florida orange growers say they support U.S. Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter's campaign to press Japan into eliminating its import quota on citrus fruits and beef.

If the quota was lifted we (can) get into the business, said George Lambeth, president of Golden River Fruit Co. in Vero Beach, Fla., at a conference last week on U.S.-Japan trade. Our (Japanese importing) companies would love to have the ability to import from us.Japan imports 3.1 million boxes of fresh U.S. oranges annually, with most of the oranges coming from California.

The agreement with the United States setting the quota on oranges expires March 1, and Mr. Yeutter wants Japan to eliminate its quotas on citrus fruits as well as on beef imports.

But Japan has sought instead to maintain some sort of import controls for at least the near future. Mr. Yeutter has replied that unless he gets a clear indication from Japan by March 1 that it intends to phase out the controls, then he will file a complaint about the import limits to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

A panel for GATT - the association that governs most trade worldwide - ruled earlier this month that Japan was unfairly controlling imports of 10 other food groups, and Japanese officials say they fear GATT would make a similar ruling on beef and citrus products if asked.

Orange growers questioned at the Japan/Florida Trade Conference were nearly unanimous behind Mr. Yeutter and unwilling to believe Japanese arguments against wiping out the controls.

At one point a Japanese trade official said his country's importers told him Florida oranges were thin-skinned and damaged easily in transport.

He said oranges are often given as gifts in Japan so they can't be ugly. He softened the criticism by saying he found Florida oranges very tasty.

Later, a Florida grower remarked in the hall outside the conference room that the only reason the Japanese give oranges as gifts is because they're so expensive.

In his speech, Mr. Yeutter said the quotas are incompatible with GATT rules, and eliminating them is the only acceptable alternative.

We expect Japan to live up to its international obligations by opening its market completely to citrus and beef imports, he said.

Japanese Ambassador Nobuo Matsunaga said his country is willing to open certain agricultural markets, but he declined in an interview to specify what Japan would propose on oranges.

Certainly the tendency is to raise the quotas, he said. I am sure we will work some way out (that) will be acceptable.

But the decision rests in Tokyo, where agricultural interests carry a lot of clout, several orange growers said. The pressure comes from Japanese farmers who grow the mikan, a tangerine-like citrus, and citrus importers who want to maintain control of the orange market.

Our feeling is that there will be some relief in the very near future, Mr. Lambeth said. Mr. Lambeth's company last year shipped about 700,000 cartons of grapefruits to a Japanese importer last year. He said the company also would like to import oranges, but can't because of the quota.

Fewer than two dozen Japanese companies can import U.S. oranges under the quota. The Florida growers said those few companies currently control the market and the price of oranges.

When you're controlling the market and you've got a small supply going over there, you name your price, said Rick Kimes of Seald-Sweet, which exports about 165,000 cartons of oranges to Japan and Taiwan last year.

Billy Heller of Indian River Creek Sales of Wabasso, Fla., said his firm has been asked by its major Japanese importer to oppose lifting the quota. Indian River exported about 1.2 million cartons of grapefruits to a company that is one of the largest quota holders on oranges.

We agreed because it could negatively impact our grapefruit volume, he said. But Mr. Heller, who is also chairman of the export committee for Florida Citrus Packers, said the trade group and most Florida growers support Mr. Yeutter's stand.

Mr. Lambeth added that three times the Florida growers have pushed for relief in trade negotiations with Japan.

Mr. Yeutter said in an interview that the oranges are not a major U.S.-Japan problem, but are symbolic of the difficulties between the two nations.