Apples to Japan

Margarito Najera picks Gala apples at Piepel Orchards, East Wenatchee, Wash., last August. Royal Gala is a variety Stemilt Growers has shipped to Japan in an effort to further open that market.

WENATCHEE, Wash. — With U.S.-Japan trade talks likely to start this month, Washington state’s congressional delegation is asking U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to work on removing Japanese barriers to Washington apples.

Stemilt Growers LLC of Wenatchee, a leader in the rocky road of apple access to Japan for more than five decades, is pleased with the delegation's action and hopeful for progress.

In congressional testimony Feb. 27, Lighthizer said talks likely would start in March, a month or two earlier than expected. The first meeting will probably focus on determining a scope of negotiations regarding agricultural and industrial products.

In a March 5 letter to Lighthizer, the Washington congressional delegation, led by Rep. Dan Newhouse and Sen. Maria Cantwell, calls out Japan for “overly restrictive” sanitary and phytosanitary policies that have “drastically inhibited” Washington growers’ “ability to ship apples to this high-priority market for decades.”

While supporting any country’s right to use science to protect its agricultural production from pests and diseases, phytosanitary rules are often used “as market barriers to protect domestic industries against foreign competition,” the delegation wrote, noting international trade rules prohibit that.

Dave Martin, export sales manager at Stemilt Growers, said that for decades the Japanese have done just that, used phytosanitary rules to protect its apples.

Stemilt Growers has shipped a limited 86,000, 40 pound-box equivalents to Japan in the last three years and may ship 15,000 to 20,000 boxes in the next couple of weeks, Martin said.

The exports ended a 16-year lull in U.S. apples to Japan.

The company is doing it at a loss, he said, to engage the issue and whet the Japanese appetite for Washington apples.

“It’s a huge challenge to do it quickly and effectively in the middle of winter because of the cold,” Martin said. “Methyl bromide used in fumigation tends to congeal when cold and becomes hard to vent and it affects overall fruit quality. We could deliver top quality fruit with better protocols.”

The current protocol of 55 days of cold treatment, fumigation and inspections is primarily to guard against codling moth and secondarily against fire blight, lesser apple worm and apple maggot, Kate Woods, vice president of the Northwest Horticultural Council in Yakima, has said.

A non-fumigation systems approach has been used for apples to Taiwan for eight to 10 years with a three- to four-year track record of zero live codling moth finds, Martin said.

“We have a proven scientific approach that has been proposed to Japan and Japan needs to consider it,” he said.

The trade talks are an “opportunity elevate the discussion and point out that science is on our side,” he said.

Stemilt has exported Royal Gala, Pink Lady and Pinata and has tried Granny Smith and Honeycrisp but they don’t hold up well to fumigation, Martin said.

Japanese consumers would like to have Honeycrisp, he said.

“We will test Cosmic Crisp,” he said of the new Washington State University variety set for limited domestic market debut this fall.

Mark Powers, president of Northwest Horticultural Council, said industry organizations have been working to improve apple access to Japan for many years and that the new trade talks are an opportunity.

Chances of progress are higher now, Powers said, with the state’s congressional delegation raising the importance of the issue with Lighthizer.

The late Tom Mathison, when president of Stemilt Growers, worked with others for three decades to gain U.S. apple access to Japan in 1995.

Washington shipped 500,000 boxes of apples to Japan that year but that dwindled to 15,000 by 1997 because of phytosanitary restrictions Japan imposed because of fire blight, a bacterium that kills apple trees.

Japan eased its restrictions in 2005 after a World Trade Organization dispute panel ruled it was violating international law. Some in the Washington apple industry, at that time, expected a 1.5 million- to 4-million-box market to develop. It didn't happen as restrictions still were more than exporters found profitable to deal with.

Martin said there’s potential for a 1 million-box market if protocols change. Stemilt Growers is the only company moving forward.

“No one else has jumped in yet. They are all moderately interested but fairly aware of that it’s low volume and high cost and by no means proven to be successful under the current protocols,” he said.

Central Washington field reporter

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