Strong domestic demand and light volumes could limit shipments of pears to China, which just opened its doors to U.S.-grown fruit, but grower-shippers also said it’s too soon to tell — and that China could wind up taking more than projected this season.

The Milwaukie, Ore.-based Pear Bureau Northwest estimates that up to 40,000 44-pound boxes of U.S. pears could be shipped to China this season.

It could wind up being much more, said Mac Riggan, marketing director of Chelan, Wash.-based Chelan Fresh Marketing.

“If it really takes off, it could be double that,” he said.

That said, Chelan Fresh will ease into the deal, Riggan said. The company’s first shipment or anjous under the company’s Trout label went out the week of Feb. 4.

“We’ll see how they respond,” he said. “The door just opened, so we’ll move cautiously.”

Howard Nager, vice president of marketing for Domex Superfresh Growers, Yakima, Wash., agreed. Domex will take a close look at its Chinese customer base, to gauge who is capable of promoting pears and supporting the pear category year-round.

In addition, Nager said, there may not be as many extra Northwest pears to ship to a new market this year as in years past. As of Feb. 1, about 68% of the crop had shipped, up from 60% at the same time last year, he said.

But none of that takes away from the opportunities the Chinese market presents, Nager said.

“We don’t have a definite date nailed down (to begin shipments to China), but we hope it’s soon,” he said Feb. 5.

Yakima-based Sage Fruit Co. will likely ship just enough to China this season to test the waters, said Steve Reisenhauer, sales manager.

He said it’s a combination of caution and conditions in the domestic market.

“Our domestic demand is very good, we’re getting good dollars and inventories are down,” he said. “We have a bird in the hand here, and we’re going to take advantage of it.”

Nager expects prices to remain fairly steady through the duration of the deal. Domex will likely ship boscs and red anjous through mid-spring and green anjous through the summer, he said.

Reisenhauer also expects markets to remain steady in coming months. Sage expects green anjous to become scarce in late February and early March, and the company’s bosc deal will likely wind down in mid-April. By early February, Sage already had run out of red anjous, he said.

On Feb. 5, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported prices of $24-26 for 4/5 bushel cartons of anjous 70-100s, up from $18-20 last year at the same time.

It will be critical, Riggan said, for Chinese receivers to be instructed in how to handle, store and display U.S. pears to ensure quality. If shrink levels are high, they won’t want to buy more, he said.

Point-of-sale materials from the bureau and planned samplings should help the process, Riggan said.

Assuming things do go well, there should be plenty of red anjous to meet whatever demand develops, despite the fact that Washington’s crop is down this year, Riggan said.