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Northwest cherry industry representatives saw hundreds of street hawkers selling fresh cherries on the outskirts of Yantai during a recent trip to northern China.

Northwest cherry industry representatives saw hundreds of street hawkers selling fresh cherries on the outskirts of Yantai during a recent trip to northern China.

Asian markets traditionally have been major importers of U.S. cherries, but a new player in the Far East—with a big appetite—has altered the export priorities of Pacific Northwest cherry growers.

In just a few years, Northwest cherry exports directly to China have grown by nearly 480 percent—from 73,800 boxes (20-pound equivalent) in 2007 to 427,900 last year. No foreign country has posted more impressive cherry export growth than the People’s Republic of China, and that number doesn’t reflect shipments sent to Hong Kong that make their way to the mainland.

Northwest Cherry Growers, the promotion arm for Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, and Montana cherry producers, began tracking direct shipments to China separately in 2005 when the country gave access to U.S. cherries. Before that, Hong Kong had long served as the back door for U.S. fruit exports into China.

Hong Kong, with a population of about four million, annually consumes about 100,000 to 150,000 boxes of Northwest cherries, according to export data collected by Northwest Cherry Growers.

The number of boxes exported to Hong Kong is always more than the Hong Kong residents typically consume because much of the fruit ends up in China, explains B.J. Thurlby, president of the Washington State Fruit Commission, which administers the Northwest Cherry Growers. Export data shows that in the early 2000s, around 300,000 boxes of cherries were sent to Hong Kong, before direct shipments were tracked to China. Since China opened to U.S. cherries, the two destinations combined reached a high of 946,000 cases in 2009, and 843,000 last year, with both markets about evenly split in the number of boxes imported.

Keith Hu, foreign promotion director for the Washington State Fruit Commission, has high hopes of further developing the Chinese market for Northwest cherries. “The Chinese imported three million boxes of cherries from Chile last year just by boat, not counting air pallets,” he said during a report to the Washington State Fruit Commission board of directors. “The potential for our cherries in China is there.”

China will be his number-one priority export market this season. Last year, he expanded promotion efforts into second-tier Chinese markets and increased in-store promotion efforts from 250 stores to more than 310. He plans to reach some 400 retailers in 2011. Other promotion plans include a “red carpet” reception in China for Northwest cherries during the season, led by U.S. dignitaries.

Currently, China has only granted access to stone fruit, including cherries, from the countries of Chile, the United States, and New Zealand. Access doesn’t mean dutyfree for the United States. China has free trade agreements with Chile and New Zealand, which gave Chile dutyfree status in 2010 and will give New Zealand dutyfree status in 2012. U.S. cherries must still pay a 10 percent duty, and all countries pay another 13 percent value-added tax.