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I Love Produce partners in California grape China import venture

Historically, most produce from the United States going into China “has gone through traders in Hong Kong and Taiwan,” said Jim Provost, managing partner in I Love Produce in Kelton, PA, who has been doing business with China for eight years, mostly importing Chinese product into the United States.

A little over three years ago, Mr. Provost’s company, I Love Produce, formed a new enterprise called Lantao in partnership with John Wang, “who is from mainland China” and who owns wholesale markets in China. “It has been his dream to open up markets in China” for produce from around the world, Mr. Provost said in an interview with The Produce News July 13. “He wanted to be among the first companies in mainland China to import directly into mainland China.”

The “sole purpose” of the new partnership, Mr. Provost said, was to import fruit into China from around the world.

“We started out with offices in Guangzhou and Shanghai” and have since expanded to a total of five distribution markets with the addition of Beijing, Shengzhou and Shangyang, he said.

Mr. Provost said that his role in the venture, in part, is to “help in managing the relationships” with shippers in the United States.

“We have been working with Jasmine Vineyards” in Delano, CA, in sourcing California grapes for the Chinese market, Mr. Provost said.

Mr. Provost and Jon Zaninovich, vice president of Jasmine, “were in the United Leadership Program together,” he said. “When I started to talk to my partner about shipping grapes to China, I really had no idea what was involved, so I called Jon Zaninovich and explained to him what we wanted to do. I remember Jon’s exact words were, ‘Shipping fruit to China is not for the faint-hearted.’ But he supported us. He gave us some grapes to see what we could do, and we proved that we can do a good job. We are going on the third year in a row, now, of shipping [Jasmine Vineyards’] grapes.”

Jasmine is “a great shippers,” and Jasmine’s “M&V” label is “one of the best labels of grapes in China,” Mr. Provost continued. “Together we are developing a strong following” for Jasmine’s grapes “in our market” in China.

“There is criticism sometimes that we import product from China,” Mr. Provost said. But in the agricultural sector, China is “buying a lot more products from the United States.” Overall, the trade balance “might be off, but when it comes to agriculture, it is in our favor — in favor of the United States — and I am glad to be part of that.”

Over the last few years, China has grown to become the largest export market for fresh California grapes, with the possible exception of Canada.

As a company, Lantao has seen “steady growth” in importation of California grapes into China as demand continues to grow, said Mr. Provost. “China is a big Red globe market,” but Chinese consumers, particularly those of the younger generation, are also “starting to enjoy the seedless varieties. Autumn royal is particularly growing in popularity. Some of the red varieties like Crimsons have done very well.”

China grows its own Red Globes, but the main producing area experienced “a lot of flooding” earlier this year, “so their grape production is going to be down about 50 percent” which “should open up the market for more United States imports,” he said.

One challenge this year will be the early date of the Moon Festival, one of China’s two major holidays and an important market window for Red Globes. Shippers will need to have their grapes on the water by around Aug. 10 to reach their destination in time for the festival, Mr. Provost observed. And with the lateness of the California crop this year, it may be difficult for some growers “to hit that market” with enough volume to meet demand.