Mexico bolsters nursery exports

Dan Wheat/Capital Press Workers load bundles of Skeena cherry trees onto a wagon as a digger loosens another row on Nov. 10, 2009. It was part of C and O Nursery Co.'s annual fruit tree dig near Quincy, Wash. Sales of fruit trees to Mexico, including cherries, have boosted U.S. exports of nursery stock.

Shipments of rootstock rise as growers replant aging orchards

By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI

Capital Press

Exports of U.S. nursery stock have been buoyed by a surge in shipments of fruit-bearing plants to Mexico, according to federal trade data.

Shipments of live plants to Mexico have been increasing for years, with the value of such exports rising from $7.4 million in 2000 to $19.6 million in 2010.

That trend appears to have strengthened significantly so far in 2011, based on data from the U.S. International Trade Commission.

Compared to the prior year, the value of live plant exports to Mexico increased more than 60 percent between January and October, the last month for which trade statistics are available.

The bulk of that growth has come from shipments of "trees, shrubs and bushes" that "bear edible fruit," according to trade data.

The spike in exports has been driven by shifting demands among Mexican farmers, said Carlos Chavez, a nurseryman in Juarez, Mexico, who also brokers nursery stock from U.S. companies.

"In Mexico, the nurseries don't produce enough rootstock to supply the market," he said.

Farmers have been pulling out large numbers of old apple trees and replacing them with newer, more popular varieties, he said. Though apple acreage isn't increasing, demand for new rootstocks has increased due to preferences of fruit buyers.

"The market is always looking for something new," said Chavez.

The climate in the state of Chihuahua is also suitable for growing cherries, which has prompted growers to establish new plantings of that crop, he said.

Some farmers are also experimenting with wine grapes as a side business -- varieties going in the ground include Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Malbec and Chardonnay, Chavez said.

Nurseries in California are the most likely to benefit from growing Mexican demand for fruit-bearing plants, said Patrick Mayer, trade development manager for the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

The major export market for nurseries in Oregon is China, which has more of a demand for ornamental plants, he said.

The market for plants in China is spurred primarily by major construction projects, rather than demand from consumers, said Mayer.

In Chinese cities, most people live in large apartment blocks and don't have an opportunity for gardening, he said.

However, members of the wealthy elite have villas that are suitable for planting ornamental stock.

As the country's middle class expands, the hope is that demand for all consumer items will also broaden, Mayer said.

"I think that's the next stage of development," he said. "That's where people think the market is going."

Exports of live plants to China have grown by less than 2 percent in 2011 after climbing steeply in prior years, according to federal trade data.

In 2010, shipments shot up nearly 30 percent, to $3.6 million, from the prior year. The U.S. sent less than $100,000 worth of plants to China in the early 2000s.

The flattening in live plant exports so far in 2011 does not indicate the growth spurt has peaked, said Don Richards, whose Applied Horticultural Consulting helps nurseries ship nursery stock to China.

"China buys based on events," such as the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, he said. "When there's not an event, the imports into China flatten off."

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