Apple packing

Fuji apples at the front end of a packing line at Valicoff Fruit Co. in Wapato, Wash. Tree fruit and nut growers are awaiting details of the new U.S.-Japan trade agreement.

YAKIMA, Wash. — The Pacific Northwest tree fruit industry can hope the new U.S.-Japan trade deal means access to Japan for Northwest apples, pears and more cherries, but no one knows for sure.

“The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has not yet shared the details of the agreement as they pertain to our industry,” said Mark Powers, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council in Yakima. He declined to say if he thinks the agreement resolves access issues.

Western Growers — an association in Irvine, Calif., representing roughly half the nation’s fresh fruits, vegetables and tree nuts — issued an optimistic statement saying it’s pleased to learn the agreement will lead to substantial reductions in tariffs and sanitary and phytosanitary barriers to U.S. access.

Japan is the third largest export market of U.S. agricultural goods, and the agreement will level the playing field for U.S. farmers, particularly “producers of fruits, vegetables and tree nuts,” Tom Nassif, Western Growers president and CEO, said.

Japanese tariffs on some U.S. agricultural products are as high as 35% and equally important are sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) restrictions blocking access, Nassif said.

“The anticipated reductions in tariffs and SPS barriers will result in true market gains and much needed economic relief for an industry that has already been caught in the crosshairs of trade wars on other fronts,” Nassif said, adding he applauds the efforts of President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

As U.S.-Japanese negotiations began in March, Washington state’s congressional delegation sent a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer calling out Japan for its “overly restrictive” SPS policies that have “drastically inhibited” growers’ “ability to ship apples to this high-priority market for decades.”

Stemilt Growers, in Wenatchee, ships small amounts of apples to Japan. Dave Martin, Stemilt’s export sales manager, has said Stemilt does it at a loss, to engage the issue and whet Japanese appetites for Washington apples.

U.S. pears are blocked by SPS policies, Powers said.

B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers in Yakima, said the Japanese market has declined in the past decade as Japanese domestic production has quadrupled.

Northwest cherry exports to Japan average about 180,000, 20-pound boxes worth $7 million to $9 million, annually, he said. That’s just 2.1% of the exports, far behind Canada, China, South Korea and Taiwan.

“While the trade agreement would be great for the U.S., it won’t have a huge impact on our cherry growers,” Thurlby said.

Julie Adams, vice president of the Almond Board of California in Modesto, said Japan is the fifth largest export market for California almonds, buying 81 million pounds in 2018-19, up 3% from the previous year and valued at $255 million.

The trade agreement will help growers and grow demand in the Japanese market if it eliminates a 2.4% tariff on almond kernels and inshell and higher tariffs on value-added almonds, Adams said.

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