Threats and counter-threats of tariffs between the United States and China have rippled into the Rogue Valley.
In response to President Donald Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum, China retaliated with tariffs on 128 products, including a 15 percent hit on fruit.
“Any time there are talks that could affect the import/export business, there is concern fresh fruit and produce can get caught up in the fight,” said Scott Martinez, vice president of sales for Rivermaid Trading Co. “We need every market available to successfully market pears.”
In recent years, Northwest pear growers have exported a third of their winter pear crop — virtually every variety but green and red Bartletts. More and more, Asia has become an attractive market.
“China has the potential to be a huge market for us,” said Mike Naumes, president of Naumes Inc., the largest pear grower in the Rogue Valley, and formerly the nation’s largest. “Unfortunately, agriculture is always the scapegoat in trade wars; so it’s hurt our industry.”
Growers such as Naumes painstakingly have developed alternative markets after Russian President Vladimir Putin slammed the door on American apples and pears in August 2014.
“Russia was going to be a significant market for pears,” Naumes said. “China is not nearly as large, at least at this point, but certainly has potential.”
The U.S. has been China’s top supplier of apples, cherries, walnuts and almonds in recent years.
Although the tariffs generally go into effect quickly, there is no sense of impending doom. Martinez, who markets Naumes pears, said one need look no further than the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“When you look at pear crops coming out of the Northwest, Canada and Mexico are the two huge markets for us,” said Martinez. “Although there is a lot of rhetoric about the change to NAFTA, we really haven’t seen it yet.”
He said Northwest apple and pear growers will depend more on Taiwan, India and the Middle East.
“In recent years, particularly since we’ve not been able to ship to Russia, it has made emerging Asian markets more important,” he said.
Martinez said the five-year average for Northwest fresh pear production has been about 19.5 million cartons (45 cartons are in a ton) per year, with last year’s production around 16.3 million cartons. He said about 5 percent of the export market disappeared when Russian docks were closed.
“We’ve been trying to expand sales closer to home, and we’ve done a pretty good job of exporting more to Mexico and Canada,” he said.
Latin America exports have increased to 2 to 3 percent of the overall figure.
Martinez said there is no danger of fruit rotting on docks.
“Everything is timed out,” he said. “Normally, when there are new rules, it doesn’t affect something on the water or on its way. You’re not going to see a ton of containers sitting on the dock or in warehouses waiting for a boat.”
Still, fruit has to find a home. If the market slows substantially, prices will take a hit.
“It’s all fairly new news, so we really haven’t gotten (detailed reports) from the industry,” Naumes said. “It seems the tactic Trump uses is to throw something out there and then negotiate from there. Hopefully, this is not something that will last for a long time.”
Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness or www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.