Like most of the 80 members of the International Fruit Tree Association’s study tour to China, Dennis Courtier went with the goal of finding out how much he should worry about China’s huge production of apples. The U.S. government has yet to allow China to export fresh apples to the United States, but China has already claimed a significant share of markets in Asia.
Apple growing systems in China are primitive compared to the rest of the world, yet the country is by far the world’s largest producer with annual production of about 20 million metric tons—almost ten times the volume that Washington State produces.
If the Chinese can produce that much fruit with outmoded methods, what could they do if they updated their orchards and really tried to grow a lot of fruit, Courtier wondered as the IFTA group visited orchards there. Current average yields were reported to be 10 to 20 bins per acre. If they got modern tractors and sprayers, and understood the concept of dwarfing rootstocks and how to plant and manage an intensive orchard, it would increase their production and efficiency.
Every other apple industry around the world has switched to high-density systems, using dwarfing rootstocks, in an effort to improve production efficiency, but most trees in China are on seedling rootstocks. The Chinese tried dwarfing rootstocks, but decided they didn’t work.
That’s because they didn’t have all the pieces of the puzzle, says Dr. Bruce Barritt, research horticulturist with Washington State University. The foundation of a good, productive orchard is a supply of high-quality nursery trees, which China doesn’t have, and they need to be planted at a density that will allow the trees to fill the space. High-density orchards also need a support system.
With trees planted on uneven benches and in every nook and cranny in China, a trellis wouldn’t work well. And in the drier areas, such as Shaanxi Province, irrigation would be more critical with intensive systems, but would be challenging on very small acreages.
The average orchard size in Shandong Province is said to be a third of an acre or less. Some of the main reasons that growers in other countries have adopted intensive systems are missing in China. About 70 percent of the apples are Fuji, and there is no apparent rush to plant other varieties, hence the time it takes for young trees to come into production is less important, particularly when other crops are interplanted.
Growers can produce a high-quality bagged Fuji, and the variety is easy to handle and stores well even without sophisticated storage. “Fuji’s been very good for them because they like the flavor—no acid— and it stores so well,” observed Jamie Kidston of Vernon, British Columbia. “As long as they stick with Fuji, then time doesn’t matter so much, but if you want to get into the new varieties as they come, you have to get into production early.”
Canada imports apples from China, and Kidston said that the future for B.C. growers will be in producing new apple varieties that don’t compete with the Chinese. “I think the future is to keep up with the variety thing,” he added. “If they want to stick to Fuji, that’s fine, let them stick to Fuji.”
Darin Case of Wenatchee, Washington, said he was concerned that some of the Chinese officials the group met expressed interest in varieties such as Pink Lady and Honeycrisp, but he noted that those varieties would be more difficult than Fuji to produce and handle in China. Pink Lady is as fragile as a Golden Delicious, and Honeycrisp (a naturally large apple) would produce oversized apples on sparsely cropped trees.
Fuji suits the Chinese because it capitalizes on their competitive advantage, which is cheap labor. They score the trees, bend limbs, hand-thin blossoms and fruit, bag every apple, and after the bags are removed they pull off leaves and turn the fruit to improve color.
A Chinese grower told the IFTA group that labor costs U.S.$5 a day, but often the grower and family can do all the work themselves on their small orchard. Howard Albano of Los Angeles, California, said while Chinese cities are developing at a mind-boggling rate, Chinese agriculture is lagging behind.
“But maybe they don’t need to be so advanced. If you have cheap labor, you don’t need to do things the way we do. High density may not be very important.” Nor did Jack Pheasant of Wenatchee think it necessary for China to have dwarfing rootstocks to survive. “It is for us, because of labor efficiency.”
The need to consolidate and mechanize might come in the future, however. As China develops economically, many young people in rural areas are moving to cities in search of a better life and are not interested in pursuing the life of a farmer.
Migration from rural areas to cities is discouraged, but some go as illegal workers and get jobs as janitors or laborers in construction, for example. Case thinks it unlikely that orchards will be mechanized, because China would not want to displace the workers. People in rural areas depend on those jobs, and mechanization would increase the gap between the rich and the poor, he points out.
But Pheasant doubts that the government will be able to stop the flow of young people to the cities, without another cultural revolution. He expects the apple industry will be affected by the aging of the rural population, just as in other parts of the world. “When that happens, eventually they’ll probably have to do what we’re doing, and convert to mechanization,” he said.
Phil Schwallier, an Extension educator in Michigan, thinks the Chinese apple industry has reached its pinnacle, unless the government takes over and consolidates the apple acreage into big farms. It could take 50 square miles of land, build a big irrigation project, make it into an orchard, and organize thousands of people into work teams, he imagines.
“The key is what the government is going to do,” he said. “Because they’re run by the government, the government can say, ‘You’re all going to put in irrigation.’ It can decide to put better roads into the community. The people are very loyal and obedient. If someone tells them, ‘Do this,’ they accept it, or ‘Dance with a sword every morning,’ they do it.”
Steve Hoying, Extension educator with Cornell University in New York, said the government’s current focus is on the 2008 Olympics and on making the country more appealing to westerners. The borders of freeways in urban areas are being beautifully landscaped, and there’s a major effort to reduce pollution. “Until the Olympics are over and done, the government’s not going to think about putting money into anything else,” Hoying commented.
Kent Waliser of Pasco, Washington, said he feels that the Chinese are collectively missing the boat, because the country has a big population that needs food. “They could probably raise twice as many apples on half of the acreage and use the other land for industrialization or for other crops. They are wasting land with unproductive apples.
They could plant more corn, more wheat, more anything—more houses….” However, he believes they are still a force to be reckoned with for every production area in the world, particularly now that they have the capability to store apples for nine or ten months. He expects to see a gradual evolution to corporate farming in China, though not immediate changes. It’s easier to start with a new system than change over an old one, he observed.
“We still have a huge technological advantage in terms of if we find a variety that we want to produce as a country or industry, we know how to put that in the ground and develop a market in a fraction of the time that they can,” he added. Case said before the tour he had been concerned about overproduction of apples. “Coming over and looking, I think it’s still a concern,” he said.
He believes the biggest obstacles for Chinese producers in the world market will be food safety, because of their use of manure and sanitary issues. He wonders if they will be able to certify orchards to satisfy requirements in export markets, such as Europe. If they are using human waste, the fruit wouldn’t qualify for the U.K. market, he said.
However, Zhang Shixin, president of the Gold Garden Industrial and Trade Company, a growing and packing operation in Shandong Province, which the group visited, said it had Eurepgap certification. Case said he hopes Washington State can work out its own marketing problems before it feels the impact of direct competition from China.
Ed Wittenbach of Belding, Michigan, said that as energy costs go up and the standard of living increases in China, he expects its apple industry will be less of a threat to other regions. “If we can hold the product out of the United States for seven to ten years, I think there’s going to be a better barrier in wages and energy costs, and we will be more competitive,” he said.
Carlos Chavez, a grower from Chihuahua, Mexico, who was in the IFTA group, said he doesn’t expect to feel much impact of Chinese competition, since China grows mostly Fuji apples, and there is not yet much demand for Fuji in Mexico.
Nor are Mexican growers concerned about Chinese apples in other markets, because they don’t export. Waliser’s philosophy is that growers should worry more about what’s happening on their own orchard than about the threat of China. “If you waste too much time worrying about China, you might be out of business,” he said.