Yakima, WA — For sweet cherry growers in the Northwest, the timing of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic is changing how growers will go to market somewhat in 2020, but despite the challenges, growers still see plenty of opportunity in their overseas markets this year.
In recent years, export markets have absorbed over 35 percent of the crop. Keith Hu, who represents the growers as their Vice President of International Business Development, believes that several important markets are quickly getting back to normal. “Our key markets of China, Taiwan, Korea and Vietnam are handling the pandemic very well and businesses have started to reopen,” he said. “Due to lost revenues, retailers are very keen on the arrival of Northwest cherries, and we intend to run aggressive promotion campaigns in those markets this summer”.
When it comes to offshore markets, growers ship 95 percent of their export fruit via air. While there have been fewer flights in recent weeks, the low cost of fuel should help growers deliver fruit at competitive prices to importers this summer. “Three out of four of our key markets are major airline transit hubs in NE Asia (Seoul, Taipei and Shanghai),” Hu said. “Therefore, getting both direct commercial and cargo flights to China, Taiwan and Korea will not be an issue.”
Hu said he’s been told that, by June, Korean Air, Asiana Air, EVA Air, China Airlines (Taiwan), Delta, United, ANA, UPS, FedEx, China Eastern Cargo, Air China Cargo, Korean Air Cargo, Asiana Air Cargo, China Airlines Cargo, Polar Cargo will have regular flights from SEA, SFO and LAX going to NE Asian cities. “I know for a fact that there are daily cargo flight services from Korea and Taiwan to both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi,” he said.
In a normal year, the Northwest Cherry growers will ship to 30 or more countries and run promotional programs in 17 markets. For a total crop, the growers have been averaging 23 million 20 lb. equivalent boxes over the past five years. Exports have remained in the 7 to 8 million box range during this time.
B.J. Thurlby, President of the Northwest Cherry Growers, believes that the export markets will perform better than expected in 2020. “Certainly, the U.S. dollar is stronger in some markets like Australia, Brazil and the Philippines, which will slow sales to those countries,” he said.
“However, we are lucky that our core volume markets of China, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam seem to have handled the COVID-19 outbreak as well as can be hoped and are well on the way to recovery.”
The big question for growers might be how many boxes can they sell to export markets given the current pandemic scenario? “That is the million-dollar question,” Thurlby said. “Based on what I am hearing about more flights and lower fuel costs to those markets this summer, I think that shipping 6 million 20 lb. equivalent boxes this year is realistic. As the 2020 crop is shorter than we have seen in several years, I think 6 million boxes may end up being 30 percent of this crop.” In 2017, the Northwest industry shipped over 7 million boxes just to Canada, China, Taiwan and Korea combined” said Thurlby.
The Northwest Cherry Growers represent over 2,100 sweet cherry growers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Utah. The Northwest Cherry season traditionally runs from early June through August each year.