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Door to China reopens for California citrus

After more than 14 months of being denied official access to the Chinese market, the California citrus industry was notified verbally the week of July 28 and in writing Monday, Aug. 4 that China was once again open for exports of California citrus.

"We are very happy the market is open," Jim Cranney, president of the California Citrus Quality Council, told The Produce News Aug. 7. "We estimate [China] to be approximately a $70 million market" and growing, with "somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 million cartons of California citrus going into China annually before the market closed.

Primary varieties shipped to China are Navel oranges, lemons and Valencia oranges, according to a press release from California Citrus Mutual. "[South] Korea and Canada continue to lead in terms of cartons received, but China is gaining on both as an export destination."

Access to the market is contingent on documented adherence to strict cultural practices, "and fruit must be inspected prior to leaving shipping point," the release stated.

The reopening of the market is important for the California citrus industry "because any time you have a significant market that is closed, that fruit has to be diverted to other markets," said Cranney. "That additional supply tends to put downward pressure on the prices."

Fortunately, the adverse impact of China's closing was "maybe not as dramatic as it could have been" because the crop size was somewhat reduced by a "significant freeze" last December, right at the start of the shipping season, he said.

As the 2014-15 season approaches, the industry is hoping for more normal production, and "we are going to need every market open and available to us," Cranney said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal & Plant Heath Inspection service "did a brilliant job working on their end to communicate with their counterparts [in China] and provide them with everything they were looking for and really shepherd this whole agreement through and get it to the finish line in good shape," he said. "I think both countries really win, because our industry has an opportunity to ship into a very dynamic and important market, from an economic standpoint, and I think consumers in China are going to be very happy with the high quality citrus that is produced in California."

The market was closed around April 2013 after "China's regulatory agency, AQSIQ [General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine] had intercepted a few containers that were tested and found to have a plant disease infection called phytophthora," Cranney said.

Immediately, the California Citrus Quality Council went to work "with our plant pathologist here in California at UC-Riverside, and we put together a mitigation plan that included some grove-management practices and a post-harvest management fungicide. We worked with the Chinese authorities and with APHIS ... providing them with technical information about how this package would work, demonstrating its efficacy."

In November 2013, during an annual meeting APHIS holds with its counterparts in China, "there was an agreement to go ahead and accept this systems approach to controlling phytophthora," based on the condition that AQSIQ first do safety assessment of the post harvest fungicide, potassium phosphite. That safety assessment would involve another agency in China, the Institute for the Control of Agrochemicals, Ministry of Agriculture. But "we found out that it was going to take a long period of time, approximately two years, for ICAMA to work out the registration and approval for the use of this chemical."

Fortunately, APHIS "was able to intervene" and come to an agreement with Chinese regulators "that the grove-management practices that would be in place should be sufficient to control phytophthora infection," so the requirement for potassium phosphite postharvest treatment "was dropped from the program," he said.

In July, the California citrus industry hosted a small delegation from China that visited groves and packinghouses and met with APHIS.

'Ultimately they were confident that we would be able to implement the mitigation measures," Cranney said. "Shortly after that, we got word that the market was going to be opened."

Tree nut market likely to feel pinch from Putin's retaliation

WASHINGTON - California-grown tree nuts may be hard hit by Russian President Vladimir Putin's ban on food imports that went into place this week in retaliation to sanctions imposed over the Ukraine conflict.

Putin signed the Aug. 6 order that targets not only U.S. exports of fruits and vegetables but also a wide variety of foods originating from European Union countries as well as Canada, Australia and Norway. The one-year ban covers beef, pork, poultry, fruits, vegetables, fish, seafood, cheese, milk and other commodities.

U.S. exporters shipped $1.3 billion worth of food and agricultural products to Russia in fiscal year 2013, and the leading categories include poultry/meat ($310 million); tree nuts ($172 million) and soybeans (147 million), according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Russia ranks as the 11th largest export market ($138.6 million) for U.S. almonds and the sixth export market for pistachios ($30.9 million).

"That's a pretty good chunk for our industry," said Ken Gilliland, international trade director for Western Growers Association, based in Irvine, CA. "If suddenly that market disappears, it takes time to find other markets."

Long-term contracts will have to be entangled, and the latest trade sanctions will have to be absorbed as California growers struggle with water issues.

Another market likely to feel some discomfort from the trade war is fresh fruits. Russia imported $35.6 million worth of U.S. tree fruits last year.

Russia ranks as the third-largest export market for pears ($12.1 million), and the 28th largest market for table grapes ($2.7 million).

But U.S. suppliers won't be the only ones feeling the pain. The latest trade squabble may end up hurting Russian consumers more than U.S. businesses.

"It is unfortunate that the biggest losers in this will be Russian consumers, who will pay more for their food now as well as in the long run," said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

SunFed Produce names Brett Burdsal to marketing post

SunFed Produce, based in Rio Rico, AZ, has hired Brett Burdsal as director of marketing, a new position.

Burdsal told The Produce News "this is a phenomenal opportunity with a company with such a great reputation for growing unbelievably high-quality produce," adding that working with SunFed's highly-professional staff "will make my job easy."

Burdsal was hired away from Columbia Marketing International, based in Wenatchee, WA, to "take SunFed to the next level," including working more closely with both consumers and retailers, he said.

SunFed's approach to produce retailers will not only involve "marketing, but category management, as well."

"Retail buyers and wholesalers know who we are because of the 20-year reputation of Danny Mandel," who is SunFed's president and chief executive officer. On the other hand, consumers don't necessarily know the "SunFed" brand, Burdsal said. For SunFed to be a household name, the proper packaging and market outreach is necessary.

"My job is to communicate with consumers, and also retailers, and to be a true partner on a lot of items."

SunFed "has an incredible story" to be told regarding its organic products. The firm "also has a lot of product that is certified as Fair Trade and it is all non-GMO. These are all stories to bring to consumers."

Other stories to be told involve the careful selection of varieties for flavor and relating how Mexico is such an important produce supplier for the U.S. market. In addition to Mexico, SunFed sources produce out of the Dominican Republic and Guatemala. 

Burdsal said the key commodities shipped by SunFed are squash, watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew and Bell peppers.

Fresh Solutions Network LLC establishes 'Side Delights' brand

Fresh Solutions Network LLC announced the establishment of the "Side Delights" brand as a powerful new full-line player in the fresh potato category. As a result, Fresh Solutions Network will be rebranding many of its existing potato offerings to bring them under the "Side Delights" master brand, including its Steamables, Bakeables, Grillables and Gourmet Petite potato products.10lbFamilyShot

The "Side Delights" name is a result of extensive consumer testing, with the goal of maximizing consumer appeal while forging an emotional connection with shoppers that will benefit the entire potato category. The brand name is rooted in the fact that 80 percent of fresh potatoes are consumed as a side dish, while “Delights” reminds consumers of how much their family enjoys eating potatoes as well as reinforcing the quality of the products grown by the owner-operated farms of Fresh Solution Networks.

The Side Delights packaging design itself is grounded in research conducted by the United States Potato Board, which found that consumers wanted potato type, size and origin clearly identified to make their shopping easier.  In addition, consumers desired recipes and serving suggestions on potato packaging, and responded more favorably to packages that featured images of prepared potato dishes.

“Our Side Delights lineup will bring new energy to the potato category, complementing retailer brands while providing a consistent appearance with compelling graphic design across the other offerings at the potato table” Kathleen Triou, president and chief executive officer of Fresh Solutions Network, said in a press release. “In addition, the establishment of a master brand allows us to deliver stronger support to our retail customers, as it focuses all of our marketing activities around a single, memorable brand that their shoppers can look for.”

The Side Delights introduction will be supported by an extensive digital campaign, including an engaging consumer-focused website loaded with recipes, preparation suggestions and information on the farms and farming families that make up the Fresh Solution Network. The full line of Side Delight offerings will be available for shipment beginning in September, and retailers should expect to see more additions to the brand’s lineup down the road. 

“The consolidation of our existing offerings under the 'Side Delights' brand name is just the first chapter in this success story,” Triou said in the release. “We have a number of other innovations in our pipeline, and they will be even more effective at generating added sales for our retail customers when we introduce them as line extensions to the 'Side Delights' master brand.”

Cold Train ceases expedited intermodal service in Washington

On Aug. 7, Cold Train Express Intermodal Service announced it would be suspending service at its location at the Port of Quincy, WA. Cold Train, operated by Rail Logistics of Overland Park, KS, developed a transportation model which allowed fresh producers in the Pacific Northwest to take advantage of refrigerated rail service that moved commodities to Chicago, IL, and points beyond in a timely and efficient manner.

The port provided the physical facility, rail track, rail siding and loading equipment. Cold Train owned the containers and worked with producers to load and deliver commodities to the port.

The facility includes one million square feet of cold storage warehousing providing perishable and produce shippers with distribution, cross-dock and storage capacity in and out of Washington. Cold Train had an established track record moving fresh commodities such as apples, potatoes and onions.

Cole Jessup, who handles domestic sales at Columbia Marketing International in Wenatchee, WA, provided some producer insights to The Produce News on Aug. 8, hours after the announcement was made.

ColdTrainDuring a special work session held in January, members of the Washington State House Transportation Committee met with officials to discuss cost effective, efficient shipment of Washington apples into the Midwest. Seen here are Pat Boss representing the Port of Quincy and Cold Train, Pat Connelly representing the Port of Quincy, Cole Jessup representing Columbia Marketing International and Mike Durfee representing Diamond Logistics Northwest. (Photo courtesy of Cold Train Express Intermodal Service)“One minute, we have things up and running. The next minute we don’t. It really puts us in a bind just because transportation has been such a big issue over the years,” he stated. “Cold Train was a fantastic service. We just got the news yesterday afternoon. We are looking at a big crop for pears and apples and need all the transportation options available.”

According to data made available by Cold Train, use of intermodal transportation was growing from the Pacific Northwest. During 2010, Cold Train moved approximately 100 containers of perishables per month from Washington to the Midwest. By 2013, that number had risen to approximately 700 containers per month shipped from Washington and Portland, OR.

By the end of 2013, Cold Train anticipated it would be shipping 1,000 containers each month from the region.

Jessup said Cold Train made significant infrastructure investments at the Port of Quincy, and the service was invaluable to CMI. “Getting fruit to the market has been a chore, especially in the winter,” he continued, adding the trucking industry continues to suffer from a lack of available trucks and drivers.

CMI, he went on to say, is watching developments closely to see what action Cold Train may be able to take to restore service in the future. Jessup said CMI will continue to use Railex service to move fruit.

“The announcement by Cold Train follows a number of scheduling issues on BNSF Railway’s Northern Corridor line that have been occurring with BNSF beginning late last fall because of increased rail congestion as result of a surge of oil and coal shipments on the Northern Corridor line,” Cold Train said in a statement. “In fact, from November of 2013 to April of 2014, BNSF’s On-Time Percentage dramatically dropped from an average of over 90 percent to less than 5 percent.”

This past April, BSNF Railway announced an initial reduction in intermodal service out of Washington to one train a day with transit times being two to three days slower than prior timetables.

“As a result of the scheduling change in April, the rail transit time nearly doubled,” Cold Train stated. “Unfortunately, this caused Cold Train’s costs of equipment, fuel and other costs to double, and caused many customers — especially fresh produce shippers — to look for other transportation service options. In fact, because of BNSF’s scheduling issues from November of 2013 until present, Cold Train lost most of its fresh produce business, including apples, onions, pears, potatoes, carrots and cherries, which was more than 70 percent of the company’s business. In addition to adversely impacting many Washington State fresh produce growers and shippers, BNSF’s scheduling changes have affected many retailers and wholesalers in the Midwest and East Coast that purchase Washington State fresh produce and frozen foods.”