Agriculture exports remain in limbo
Employees at Delta Fresh packing sort through cherries to pick out the blemished fruit in this file photograph. The packing company can ship cherries as far as Japan, Korea and Australia.

Although California’s agricultural exports to Japan aren’t expected to set records this year, experts believe their commodities will still be in demand.

“It’s kind of an unknown right now,” said Scott Hudson, San Joaquin County’s Agricultural Commissioner. “We’re taking a wait-and-see approach.”

Japan has historically been a strong market for San Joaquin County growers. Before Canada and European Union countries overtook the island nation early in the 2000s, Japan was California’s No. 1 customer for produce. Of all the crops grown in San Joaquin County, asparagus and cherries are the crops most commonly exported to Japan. Japan also imports commodities including walnuts, onions and pumpkins from Delta-area growers.

In the wake of massive earthquakes, a devastating tsunami and nuclear disaster, waves of uncertainty have swept through fields, orchards and shipping plants across California. Although Japan’s economy remains strong overall, challenges are abundant for this year’s export market.

Since asparagus and cherries are harvested earliest in the season and are the most notable exports to Japan, experts will have a clear idea of what kind of year to expect in the coming weeks, Hudson said.

“We will know by the middle of June if there has been an impact,” he said. “If there seems to be a downturn, we will know by then.”

Despite the uncertainty, a local fruit packing executive isn’t pressing the panic button.

“I’m pretty optimistic that it should be a good cherry season, but we probably won’t hit the numbers we hit for Japan last year,” said Paul Poutre, general manager of Delta Packing Company.

Last year, the California cherry packers shipped 940,000 18-pound boxes of cherries to Japan. One reason Poutre expects the number to be lower in 2011 is because airline flights to Japan have been reduced since the earthquake.

Since cherries have a limited shelf life, they are shipped by air to get to the market quickly. Bulk packages are often stowed and shipped on commuter airlines. Since fewer travelers are going to Japan and airlines are concerned about their planes being exposed to radiation, flights to Japan are being reduced, Poutre said.

“Airspace is going to be down 10 to 20 percent,” he said.

Exports to Japan account for about 10 percent of Delta Packing Company’s total business, Poutre said.

California asparagus could thrive in Japan this year because people could be hesitant to buy locally, said Daniel Sumner, director of the University of California Agricultural Issues Center, a forum for analyzing issues affecting agriculture.

“You could see people hesitant to buy their own product,” Sumner said. “Some of Japan’s crops are fine, some destroyed and others don’t trust some of it.”

While he didn’t recall any year in recent memory that provided similar challenges to 2011, Sumner said it was important to keep the tragedy in Japan in perspective. The market will be there, as long as the commodities themselves are made available, he said.

“This is major disaster in a wealthy country; a number of people have pointed out that in the grand scheme of Japan’s economy, it’s damaged about one percent,” Sumner said. “It’s not like they’ve gone from wealthy to poor.”

Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at

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