Cherries as far as the eye can see, and in a hodgepodge puzzle of different growing practices and varieties is how B.J. Thurlby sums up the cherry production he saw in northern China on a mid-April trip.
Thurlby, president of the Washington State Fruit Commission, which administers the Northwest Cherry Growers, and Keith Hu, foreign promotion director, spent a whirlwind week in northern China getting an overview of Chinese sweet cherry production. Northwest Cherry Growers is the promotion arm for cherry producers in five states (Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Utah).
Thurlby and Hu met with some of the country’s larger cherry growers to learn about production, horticultural practices, handling and storage facilities, and potential for future threats to the Northwest cherry’s current strong market position in Asia.
Additionally, they met with importers and retailers in several second-tier northern Chinese markets (Yantai, Shenyang, and Tsingtao), as well as with major importers in Shanghai, to formalize marketing strategies for the upcoming Northwest cherry season.
What follows are some of the trip’s highlights and impressions from Thurlby’s trip report.
Northern China cherry production—Almost all cherries in China are grown in the northern provinces of Shandong and Liaoning, according to a group of industry leaders in Yantai. Their collective wisdom holds that more than 100,000 acres of cherries are planted in this Shandong-Liaoning region. Surprisingly, there is a feeling by the growers that there are hundreds of thousands of small cherry growers across northern China, with many tending only an acre or so of cherries.
We met with Wang Heping, vice president of the Yantai Cherry Growers Association, who grows about 400 acres of cherries, and he led us across many miles of cherry orchards primarily made up of the Red Lantern variety, but along the way we saw Bing, Lambert, Santina, Tieton, Lapins, and numerous unnamed varieties that have been propagated by Chinese growers. Some of the interesting pieces of information that came out of our meetings were:
—Many growers produce only 1,000 pounds of fruit per acre, and profitability has become more and more of a challenge over the last five years. Many orchards are being sold to the government for future urban development.
—A Chilean firm brought an automated packing line over last year and lost significant money because they could not get enough product to run across the line. One importer familiar with the situation mentioned that the Chileans were disappointed to the point that they have no plans to make a similar effort in the future.
—Hand labor is the name of the game. In looking at about 5,000 acres of cherries, we saw no automated machinery like sprayers or even orchard tractors. Many growers water by hand, and we saw growers bring fire hoses into the orchards to irrigate. Water is pumped from creeks and cisterns that have been dug by the farmers.
—At this time, there are very few high-density plantings. Trees are pruned completely differently relative to horticultural standards in the United States.
—Labor is abundant, but many growers do their own hand picking when cherries are ripe and pick their small orchard numerous times during the growing season. One grower with ten acres mentioned that he picks his cherries with only two people.
—Many growers field pack into boxes and take their cherries to nearby markets. Packing capacity and cold storage is limited.
—Chemicals, when used, are usually applied with backpack sprayers. We saw small empty pesticide containers littered throughout the orchard landscapes.
—Greenhouse-covered orchards are commonplace. Apparently, the growers who can afford to construct a greenhouse have a financial advantage in getting their fruit to market earlier than conventional growers. Greenhouses may cover around 8 acres, but we saw one that covered 20 acres of cherry trees. As we drove into Yantai, there were hundreds of hot dog stand-type street vendors selling Red Lantern cherries to passing consumers.
—Growers heat the greenhouses however they can, from oldstyle radiators to burning coal in ceramic urns.
—Many growers fear that they will be the last generation of their family to farm cherries. The younger generation has left the farm for the quickly developing cities. Industry can be seen closing in and around many of the orchards near Yantai. One grower recently sold about one-third of his acreage to the government. Acreage is being turned into industrial land when the opportunity arises. We saw a coal processing plant, with plumes of black smoke, about a mile from cherry orchards.
Potential for Northwest cherries—In the near term, the Northwest Cherry market share in surrounding Asian countries is safe from overproduction of sweet cherries coming out of China. The Chinese have challenges with infrastructure and quality. Cherries we tasted on this trip were similar to tart cherries. We must continue to monitor their production, but unless there is a large infusion of modern orchard renovation capital, the Chinese will sell their crop locally into markets that are beginning to demand quality products and only fill a small portion of the potential demand in their own country.
Cherries are an iconic fruit in China and are the most sought-after fruit product to be offered as gifts during China’s various holidays. Cherries will continue to be grown in China, and the people there will continue to see them as an affordable luxury that symbolize something special in their day-to-day lives.