China apples

High-density apple plantings at Northwest A&F University, Xian, China, on May 24. China is improving its apple research and production.

YAKIMA, Wash. — China is on the move not only economically but also on apples.

Just back from the latest of his well over a dozen trips to China, Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission, told members the nation is making strides in apple research and production.

It will take years — Fryhover guesses 10 to 15 — before China improves its production to the point it no longer wants premium quality Washington apples, he said at a May 30 meeting in Yakima.

China produces about 9 times as many apples as the U.S. and consumes most domestically. Growers produce mostly Fuji apples but are beginning to venture into other varieties.

Washington apple exports to China are roughly half of what they were before China’s tariff grew to 50% a year ago because of the U.S.-China trade war.

Exports were developing toward a 2 million, 40-pound box market valued at roughly $50 million. The industry once figured it could grow exports there to a 10 million-box market worth about $250 million.

Fryhover and several Washington growers and industry officials visited Chinese orchards, packing and research facilities on May 18-27.

Stefano Musacchi, Washington State University endowed chair of tree fruit physiology, was impressed that researchers are field testing 50,000 variety crosses over three to four years with Honeycrisp in almost every cross, Fryhover said.

“This for Stefano was a mind-blower. He wished we had the resources to do this,” he said.

It was being done in collaboration with Cornell University providing germplasm and with 10 Chinese faculty compared with WSU’s six faculty in the same arena, he said.

While the group saw a modern, high-density 400-acre orchard and packing facilities, about 95% of China’s orchards are family operations of 1 acre or less, Fryhover said.

The low cost of labor — about $15 per worker per day — is the backbone of China’s success but it’s hard to see how the system will survive into the future as more young people leave small farms for life in the cities, Fryhover said.

Maintaining adequate labor and water are big concerns, he said.

The central region of Yuncheng has overtaken an area north of Beijing in apple production, he said. No land is wasted. Orchards, wheat fields and other crops grow side-by-side. At 2,000 feet in elevation and the same latitude as Bakersfield, Calif., heat and sunburn on apples are challenges.

China expects a crop of about 32 million metric tons this year, up 20% from last year. “No one seemed to have an agenda of increasing exports” and no one talked about trade issues, Fryhover said.

There was a lot of “nationalistic symbolism” on TV, promoting the military, president and national pride, he said.

“The clear messaging, at least to me, was be prepared to push back against the U.S. if necessary,” he said. “Cameras are everywhere. On every corner and overpass. It’s Big Brother on steroids. Facial recognition software. Our guide said there’s only one thing important to the people and that is food. Nothing else matters.”

Central Washington field reporter

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