Washington ag producers ready to focus on Vietnam
By DAN WHEAT
YAKIMA, Wash. -- Northwest Cherry Growers will train retailers on keeping cherries fresh and will promote cherries in Vietnam next year as a result of Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire's recent trade mission to Vietnam and China.
Vietnam has a larger middle class than numbers show and the "cold chain is strong enough that we will go in," B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers and the Washington State Fruit Commission in Yakima, said Sept. 27.
Thurlby was on the Vietnam portion of the two-week trade mission that ended Sept. 23 and included 100 delegates from Washington agricultural and non-agricultural industries.
With no training or promotions, Northwest cherry exports to Vietnam increased from 1,000 to 10,000 20-pound boxes from 2009 to 2010, Thurlby said. With training and promotions and Vietnam's buying power, the number could be 100,000 boxes in five or six years, he said.
Every market helps when the Northwest is producing cherry crops of up to 20.5 million boxes, he said.
China and Vietnam are viewed as great potential markets because of large populations and expanding middle classes that have buying power and want U.S. quality.
China has gone from buying no Washington cherries in 2004 to close to half a million boxes in the last two years. Thurlby sees it heading toward 1 million boxes when the city of Dalian in northeast China and northern districts begin importing.
China produces more potatoes and apples than any country in the world but is importing more Washington apples and frozen potato products.
Hong Kong imported 1.6 million 40-pound boxes of Washington apples in 2009 and China imported 834,675 boxes, said Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission, who went on the trip. About 80 percent of the Hong Kong apples were Gala and Granny Smith and entered China via the gray market, he said. China only officially accepts Red and Golden Delicious.
The U.S. has for years been working on full apple varietal access to China.
"The governor worked harder than anyone on the trip," Fryhover said. "She's a fantastic promoter of Washington products whether it's french fries, biotech or Almond Roca. She was gauging consumers and getting them to try french fries."
Fryhover said his highlight was visiting Yantai, a massive apple growing region, and learning about Chinese growing and packing. "It's dense orchards, no tractors, all hand labor. At 30 to 75 cents an hour, if anything needs getting done, you just put more people on it," he said.
He met with importers and agricultural trade officers to discuss Chinese suspension of apple shipments from U.S. packing houses for decay in late-arriving apples. The Chinese mistakenly believe it is a fungus, he said.
Matt Harris, director of trade of the Washington State Potato Commission, said exports of U.S. frozen french fries, hash browns and tater tots to China was at 34,000 metric tons, valued at $33 million, in 2009.
A lot of it comes from Washington state, he said.
China grows white potatoes and Washington could offer greater varieties of fresh potatoes the Chinese middle class would like, he said.
Hotels and restaurants would be a key market for fresh potatoes in China, as it is in Vietnam, he said.