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A demonstration and research orchard in China's Shaanxi Province.

A demonstration and research orchard in China’s Shaanxi Province.

China’s apple production is increasing in its western provinces. Apple production is shifting to new areas as grain and vegetable production has proven more profitable for producers in higher rainfall areas.

Five years ago, in China’s Shaanxi Province, the area around its capital city of Xi’an was dense with apple orchards. Today, orchards are rare. Trees were replaced by wheat fields when producers responded to government incentives to increase grain production. Apple production began to shift to the northern parts of the province, which is essentially a high plateau with limited rainfall and little irrigation, and few pests. The high altitude and cold fall nights are conducive to high-quality apples, and while yields are much lower, costs are too.

Apple juice processing plants in central Shaanxi that once had an abundance of juice apples have had to pay much higher prices for juice apples—more than $100 per ton in 2006. In the northern part of the province, there is only one apple juice concentrate plant.

Producers in the high plateau area of Shaanxi are increasing their plantings of apple trees in response to improved apple prices and small government incentives. This area is very rural, but income per capita is improving. There are some new homes in villages but very few. Many homes are still built into hillsides, and apples are stored in underground rooms. Farmers accumulate livestock manure in pits and then collect the methane gas for cooking. The remaining waste is then used as fertilizer in the orchards. Most homes are heated by coal, while heat for cooking is produced by burning cornstalks or other crop residue. Beds are designed with a small oven-like enclosure under them to provide heat from coal embers throughout the night.

Most apple producers farm between 10 and 15 mu (1.6 to 2.5 acres) of orchard and about a third of the acreage is in new plantings. Fuji is still the dominant variety, although Gala is becoming more popular. Most orchards are low-density plantings of full-size trees and are not irrigated. There are several government demonstration farms that have some irrigation and higher-density plantings, but most focus on teaching producers better management practices and introducing new technology. Some researchers have experimented with dwarfing rootstocks, but have found that yields and quality are better from full-sized trees. Other researchers have shown that dwarfing rootstocks and high-density orchards consistently produce higher quality fruit and greater profits, but take much more management skill.

In 2006, apple producers in Shaanxi received 3 to 4 yuan per kilogram (about U.S.$0.20 per pound) for good quality apples and about 1 yuan per kilogram (about U.S.$117 per ton) for juice apples. These prices are somewhat higher than in the previous year, despite a large crop, and are primarily due to a growing demand for fresh fruit and juice by Chinese consumers.

In an informal survey of apple producers, Chinese horticulturalists found that about one-third of apple producers in Shaanxi Province lose money, one-third break even, and one-third make money. They indicated that the determining factor is the farmer’s management abilities and willingness to adopt improved production methods along with good agricultural practices. However, some growers follow the old adage that if a little is good, a lot must be better. When applied to chemicals and fertilizer, this philosophy creates residue and environmental issues for the farmer and sometimes for neighbors.

Producers who have planted high-density orchards will significantly increase production, and because of improved management, they will likely improve the overall quality of their apples. Early projections for 2007 by producers suggest a large crop, similar to last year. However, horticultural researchers suggested the total crop in China will be approximately 20 million metric tons, down 20 percent from 2006, and that Shaanxi’s production will fall to five million metric tons, down 30 percent from 2006, based upon their assessment of early conditions.

Chinese production is beginning to shift to areas that have more of a comparative advantage in producing higher quality apples, although yields are lower. However, adoption of better technology and production practices will improve yields in the future. Overall, increased production must be balanced against growing demand from Chinese consumers with growing incomes.