(UPDATED COVERAGE, 2:00 p.m., Jan. 30) After almost two decades of lobbying, U.S. pear shippers have finally gained access to the Chinese market.

Within two or three years, China could be in the top five of U.S. export markets, said Kevin Moffitt, president and chief executive officer of Milwaukie, Ore.-based Pear Bureau Northwest.

Under the agreement, U.S. shippers can begin shipping to China this season. The U.S. Department of Agriculture began issuing permits to exporters Jan. 25, and three or four containers were set to leave for China Feb. 31, Moffitt said.

“There was a lot of interest from China right away,” he said. “We’re extremely pleased.”

Between 25,000 and 40,000 boxes could be exported to China in the first quarter of 2013 alone, according to pear bureau estimates.

Wenatchee, Wash.-based Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers could have its first shipments on the water in the first half of February, said Scott Marboe, the company’s marketing director.

“It’s a great opportunity to expand the pear category,” Marboe said. “I think China could be one of the top export markets in the world, especially for red pears.”

The prospects for a deal increased significantly after bilateral talks in September. The U.S. pear industry had been trying to gain access to China since 1994.

One major sticking point had been Chinese concerns about fire blight. A study published two years ago showed that fire blight cannot be carried on fruit.

In exchange for China allowing exports of U.S. pears, the U.S. will begin importing sand pears from China, Moffitt said. The U.S. already imports ya and fragrant asian pears from China.

U.S. shipments to China could reach 60,000 boxes in 2013-14, with steady increases expected in subsequent seasons, Moffitt said.

In addition to red pears, U.S. shippers will likely ship green anjous to China.