Cherry deal hinges on pest protocol

Chinese inspectors are expected in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley next month to undertake the next step in a recent trade deal involving cherry exports.

David Geen, vice-president of the B.C. Cherry Association, said growers are pleased with the new market access announced two weeks ago by federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz.

He estimated sales could reach $10 million by next year and possibly double that over the next five years.

This year will see a pilot program of up to one million pounds of cherries if China satisfies itself that B.C. cherries will arrive free of cherry fruit fly.

“In this trial year, and this is often the case, the importing country has its own people here observing the protocol, observing the testing,” said Geen.

“Any growers who are registered will need to have a much more extensive insect monitoring and record keeping program. We need to do more extensive trapping than is normally the case to monitor for cherry fruit fly.”

He said Chinese inspectors will examine every shipment, which will limit the amount of cherries that can be sent this year.

B.C. cherries are already exported to more than 20 countries, and inspection and safety assurances from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency typically suffice.

“The hope is that the Chinese gain a level of comfort and confidence in what they see and moving forward we have a similar regimen to what we have with other countries, where our inspection people do the inspections and the Chinese rely on that.”

China could become Canada’s largest export market if all goes well.

The Okanagan has seen a big in-crease in cherry acreage. Geen said more than 4,000 acres are planted to cherries, compared to 2,000 acres 10 years ago.

New varieties of cherries developed in Summerland, B.C., which is considered to have the world’s premier cherry breeding program, have resulted in fruit availability from early July through early September.

Geen said the longer time period for cherry availability is an attraction for the Chinese and an advantage for B.C. growers.

“The perishability of cherries combined with the genetic lateness of the Canadian varieties gives us a market window that, compared to apples, for example … gives us a niche that we can nicely sell.”

B.C. Fruit Growers president Jeet Dukhia said there are at least 200 new acres of cherries in the Okanagan this year, and some growers are looking at expansion upon news of trade opportunities with China.

However, potential is limited for major expansion in the valley, which has only 20,000 acres of farmable land. Vineyards, apple orchards and other agriculture operations occupy a good portion of that.

B.C. production is also small compared to that of Washington state, which also exports to China. Geen said Washington ships more cherries to China than the B.C. industry produces in a year.

Dukhia said Washington production created an oversupply of cherries last year, which affected Canadian sales. Had China been open to trade then, “we would have sold everything (grown) in B.C.”

Prices for cherries fluctuate, but Geen said there is a market for premium product in Asian countries. And those countries are willing to pay for it.

“There’s an understanding in most markets that Canadian cherries are the pick of the crop, as it were. They’re a superior product to most competing offerings. That’s partly varietal, it’s partly the climate that we grow the fruit it and it’s partly the fact that we’ve got very dedicated, hands-on growers,” he said.

Cherry producers have been working toward a deal with China for at least six years. Among the hurdles was China’s requirement for a cold treatment of 21 days to eliminate insect risk, which reduces fruit quality.

Geen said the CFIA successfully proved to China that Canadian protocols are sufficient protection.

“We’ve been exporting to other countries for decades without transmitting any cherry fruit fly. So hats off to the CFIA negotiators.”

B.C. Agriculture Council chair Rhonda Driediger hopes the deal will open doors.

“We are hopeful this agreement will pave the way for access to China for other B.C. agricultural products.”

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