SM apple grading

At a packinghouse, apples go through a GeoSort machine for grading, which takes about 16 photos per second to measure external and internal fruit quality. 

Amidst industry challenges, Washington state apple exports are at a 22-year low.

The U.S. Apple Association Thursday reported that apple exports to Southeast Asia and China  have declined by 40% in the last three years.

The dramatic plummet in exports is especially noticeable in the lead-up to Chinese New Year, which in 2022 falls on Feb. 1.

The Lunar New Year — celebrated by Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Singapore, China and other Asian countries —  has historically been a boon for U.S. apple growers since it's common for people to give each other apples for the holiday.

This year, however, due to tariffs, ocean transportation challenges, changing apple varieties and disrupted markets, American apple industry leaders say the export market to Asia looks bleak.

“There is a long, rich heritage in Southeast Asian countries of gifting apples as a gesture of friendship and good health during Chinese New Year,” Jim Blair, U.S. Apple Association's president and CEO, said in a statement. “This tradition helped carve a prominent space for U.S. apple exports for those celebrations. Sadly, this year, most of those apples won’t be from the U.S.”

The association attributes the drop in exports in part to retaliatory tariffs. Current Chinese tariffs on U.S. apples are at 50%, according to the association.

The organization has called on the Biden Administration to eliminate Section 232 and 301 tariffs on Chinese products so that China, in turn, will drop its retaliatory tariffs on U.S. products such as apples.

The Northwest Horticultural Council, led by Mark Powers, has also been in conversations with the administration about how the tariffs have hurt U.S. apple growers.

Rebecca Lyons, international marketing director for the Washington Apple Commission, said apple exports to China alone have dropped about 28% since the 2017-2018 pre-tariff season.

Lyons said the tariffs clearly had a significant impact, but other factors have also contributed to the decline in exports to Asia, including ocean freight issues, overall rising industry costs and changing markets.

Another fragment of the story is that American growers are simply producing fewer Red Delicious apples now than they were a few years ago, and Red Delicious is a highly favored variety in Asia.

"There are just a lot of moving parts," said Lyons. "It's really challenging for the industry right now."

Washington state is responsible for about 95% of U.S. apple exports, so growers in that region feel the impacts most directly.

The state is now at a 22-year low for exports, with only 21.3% of its apples being exported.

"That's really low," said Lyons.

According to data from the Northwest Horticultural Council and Washington Apple Commission, on average, Washington exported 31.36% of the crop annually in the five years leading up to COVID, 28.3% of the 2019-2020 crop and 25.9% of the 2020-2021 crop.

“Sadly, we lost the momentum and growth potential due to the confluence of excessive tariffs, as well continued supply chain and shipping issues," said Blair, of the national association. "We are continuing to urge the administration to find a solution that will ease the tariffs on U.S. apples.”

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