Deal opens Chinese market to Okanagan cherries

Okanagan orchardist believes the deal will relieve some pressure on local markets

Local cherry growers are looking forward to new opportunities in a new market this season, after the provincial and federal governments co-operated to sign a ground-breaking deal with China last week.

An agreement signed between the governments of Canada and China in Beijing this week commits the two countries to work on access for a number of specific Canadian foods, including cherries. British Columbia produced 94 per cent of Canada’s sweet cherries in 2010, with top export markets including Taiwan and Hong Kong.

“We are very pleased to see this progress on access to China for B.C. cherries. A final agreement has the potential to immediately garner $10 million or more in cherry sales to China,” said Christine Dendy, a director of the Okanagan Kootenay Cherry Growers Association. In 2010, B.C. growers exported about $29 million worth of cherries, including more than $7.5 million to Taiwan and $5 million to Hong Kong.

Greg Norton, a third-generation orchardist who has been growing cherries in the Okanagan for more than two decades, said he is excited about the possibilities.

“It gives us an alternate market. I think the whole industry will feel the effects of this,” said Norton. “It is not a simple country to get into. But having the prime minister signing agreements should reverse the flow of bureaucracy, it’s now coming from the top down, which will encourage the local bureaucrats.”

While exporting to China brings with it some challenges, like high fruit standards and keeping the cold chain intact during the three weeks it could take to ship the cherries there, Norton said there are growers able to meet those challenges.

“Not every operation is equipped or prepared to make those kind of decisions to get that product out there. People that are able to do that will be shipping to China instead of locally, so that should relieve some of the pressure on the local markets,” he said. “It may be a little more indirect for some cherry producers, but overall it will be a positive.”

As part of the B.C. Jobs Plan, the provincial government is focusing on building export markets for B.C. food, encouraging international consumers to look to B.C. for high-quality and trusted foods. Don McRae, B.C.’s minister of agriculture, said expanding exports to Asian markets is a key theme of the new Agrifoods Strategy, which is expected to be released this spring.

“B.C.’s excellent farm products are already in high demand in China. This clearly shows the importance of the additional cargo flights to and from YVR,” said Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Blair Lekstrom. “This agreement signed between the governments of Canada and China is an exciting step forward to opening more markets in Asia.”

In July 2011, Canada’s first dedicated cargo flights to Mainland China began from YVR to Shanghai. The three-times-per-week flights typically deliver B.C. seafood and could also carry cherries and other fresh foods. B.C. has posted record exports of agrifood products to China in each of the last three years, with exports topping $100 million for the first time ever in 2010.