Exporters push into central Asia
Fruit marketers seek sales in isolated pockets of former Soviet Union
By DAN WHEAT
The Pear Bureau Northwest and the Washington Apple Commission are pushing pears and apples into the interior of Russia and a representative made an exploratory visit to neighboring Kazakhstan in early November.
The Russian interior is more promising, with both organizations working to grow budding markets there.
In 2009, 544,000, 44-pound boxes of Pacific Northwest pears were imported into Russia via the ports of St. Petersburg in the west and Vladivostok in the east. Of that, about 30 percent was sold in the interior, said Jeff Correa, the Pear Bureau's international marketing director in Milwaukie, Ore.
In the 2009-10 sales season, 651,361 40-pound boxes of Washington apples went to Russia with about 35 percent going into the interior, said Todd Fryhover, president of the Apple Commission in Wenatchee.
Both organizations are increasing point-of-sale promotional materials and training retailers in the interior, but the Pear Bureau is leading the charge, Fryhover said.
"There are 11 cities in Russia with 1 million people or more. The infrastructure to get product into the interior is difficult," Fryhover said.
Vladivostok buys U.S. pears until May, but St. Petersburg is done in February when it turns to fresh supplies from Argentina and Chile, Correa said.
Kazakhstan, south of Russia and west of China, is the largest of the former Soviet republics but has a population of just 16 million.
The Pear Bureau began thinking about it several years ago, before the global economic crisis, when St. Petersburg importers began selling Northwest pears there.
"We had inquiries from Kazakhstan at the World Food Moscow trade show and thought it would be a good time to evaluate the market," Correa said.
Katerina Akulenko, representative for the Pear Bureau and Apple Commission in Vladivostok, visited Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, and Almaty, the former capital, in November.
Akulenko reported that the country lacks importers but that wholesalers are well aware of Pacific Northwest pears and apples and have been buying small amounts from St. Petersburg for some time to provide quality fruit that wealthy customers want.
Apples and pears from China, but marked as American, were being sold in Almaty markets, she wrote. Some of that could be American, but marketers also mislabel fruit as American to boost sales, Correa said.
Kazakhstan grows some pears and has its own fairly large apple production, he said. Almaty means "apple" in the native language, he said.
Akulenko suggested Pear Bureau and Apple Commission point-of-sale materials be placed in METRO Cash & Carry stores -- a German-based grocery chain -- to spur demand from other retailers.
"If they get enough volume, maybe an apple and pear promotion together makes sense. We still have to evaluate that," Correa said.
Logistics is the big challenge, he said. About 20 days is the quickest pears can get from the Northwest to St. Petersburg, he said, and it's a few more days to a week to get them to Almaty.
It costs about $23 a box to get pears to St. Petersburg and another $6 a box to get them to Kazakhstan, he said.
"On a map it's similar to trying to get fruit into Mongolia. We have to rely on the goodness of others to get fruit their properly, to make sure the cold chain is kept," he said.
"I don't see it as 10,000 boxes of pears next year or 50,000 boxes of apples," he said, "but from Katerina's photos the country looks more developed than I'd imagined."