Japan may warm to U.S. apples

Dan Wheat/Capital Press Fuji apples await transport from a Stemilt Growers Inc. orchard near Quincy, Wash., on Oct. 10. Japan may start buying Fuji like these in a few years as its own crops diminish as aged growers retire.

YAKIMA, Wash. — Restrictions on U.S. apples exported into Japan have been so onerous that the market has basically been closed for decades.

But that may change in the next few years because Japan’s apple crop is likely to diminish as its apple farmers age and no one takes their places. That’s what Brian Sand, marketing director of Auvil Fruit Co., Orondo, Wash., said at the Oct. 10 meeting of the Washington Apple Commission in Yakima.

“The average age of Japanese apple growers is now 65,” Sand said.

Cherry importers from Japan mentioned the situation when they were in Orondo during cherry season earlier this year, Sand said.

“They expect a sudden drop in domestic supply of Fuji and they say it could come faster than what the Japanese government or U.S. thinks — within five years,” Sand said.

Japanese growers typically have small orchards and are known for attention to detail and high-quality fruit, he said. Japanese consumers will not want lesser quality Chinese apples and will turn to the U.S., he said.

New Zealand is the only country, Sand said, that Japan accepts apples from now.

Sand’s comments at the Apple Commission meeting came after West Mathison, president of Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee, raised the possibility of starting an effort toward Japan. His grandfather and his predecessor as president of Stemilt, the late Tom Mathison, 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.

Japan could change all of that rapidly if it faces a shortage of apples in the next few years, Sand said.

“With our own larger crops,” he said, “we need every market we can get.”

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