Huge market opens for B.C. cherries

Last summer
Last summer's cherries in an East Kelowna orchard.
— image credit: judie Steeves/Capital News

After seven years of effort on the part of a number of industry organizations and governments, the door has opened for Okanagan cherries to be exported to China this year.

The agreement could mean that by 2014 sales of fresh cherries to China could be worth $10 million, increasing to $20 million annually over the next five years.

Kelowna grower Christine Dendy, president of the B.C. Cherry Growers’ Association, said she’s pleased that their efforts have finally paid off.

An agreement was announced Friday by federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz, who said China is a rapidly growing market for Canadian farmers with export sales of agricultural products to China worth $5 billion in 2012.

Lake Country cherry grower David Geen, chair of the association’s market access committee, explained that it’s typical to have a trial period when a country opens its market to a new product such as cherries, to ensure there are no adverse impacts on the local industry, such as from a new pest or disease.

Of particular concern to China is the Western Cherry Fruit Fly, which is a pest that is not currently an issue there, so the inspectors will be vigilant in efforts to ensure it’s not present in any fruit to be exported from B.C.

One of the stumbling blocks in negotiations has been a blanket requirement for a cool treatment the Chinese felt would prevent an infestation from being imported with B.C. fruit, but Geen says there’s actually not even any proof that would prevent it. Such a treatment would be harmful to fruit quality.

Instead, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and other countries to which B.C. exports cherries, rely on the brown sugar test to detect that pest.

The Chinese have also required that another incubation test be performed on cherries from every orchard from which cherries would be exported to China this year, at the Pacific Agri-food Research Centre in Summerland, to ensure no Western Cherry Fruit Fly is present before fruit is shipped.

This year, sales will be limited because part of the agreement is that the B.C. industry will host two inspectors from China throughout the harvest this season, to approve every shipment.

Geen said they expect the presence of inspectors here and the incubation test will only be required this first year, until they are comfortable with Canadian protocols.

All will be at the cost of growers, he noted, and they will be applying for funding to help with that cost.

He said 35 B.C. growers were certified by the CFIA this spring to ship cherries to China, and each has had to follow a rigid pest monitoring program, documented weekly and submitted to the CFIA to be sent to China.

Geen noted that the negotiations have been very much a team effort of the federal and provincial governments, the BCCA and the B.C. Fruit Growers Association.

CFIA staff are due a lot of credit for the successful conclusion of talks, he said.

“There’s been a lot of teamwork,” he noted, including between growers who would normally be competing with each other for market share.

However, the stakes are high.

With a market of 1.2 billion people, and an affluent sector of the populace that is four times the population of Canada, China is an important market for a rapidly growing supply of B.C. cherries, notes Geen.

“They’re considered a luxury item; a healthy food. Fresh cherries with a nice green stem represent good luck. Often they’re purchased as a gift, like you would take a bottle of wine to a dinner at a neighbour’s home,” he explained.

Geen grows cherries on 300 acres in Lake Country and Vernon and packs his own fruit on-farm. He currently ships fruit all over Asia and Europe every year.

He attended talks in China earlier this year on behalf of the BCCA.

Dendy has been there since last week and has visited markets in Shanghai as well as meeting with marketers and industry to work out details of the agreement.

She anticipates sending fruit by air freight so it will arrive in top shape in China, but some will also be shipped in refrigerated containers by sea.

This year’s cherry crop is down in volume, but that promises extra large, premium-quality cherries, which would make for an excellent launch year for B.C. cherry sales in to China, she said.

B.C. Agriculture Council chair Rhonda Driediger congratulated cherry growers and government on successful negotiation of the agreement.

“We’re hopeful it will pave the way for access to China for other B.C. agriculture products.”

Ritz has also raised the issue of fresh market access to China for B.C. blueberries, and there is a commitment to reach an agreement on that by 2014.

Only one commodity at a time will be discussed by the Chinese.


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