(April 7, 11:35 a.m.) Washington apple exports to Russia have room to grow and could hit close to 1 million boxes this year, said Rebecca Baerveldt, export marketing manager for the Washington Apple Commission.

About a dozen firms export apples and pears to Russia, with some exporting directly and others using agents to move fruit to Russia, she said.

While Baerveldt didn’t name companies involved in the deal, large sized firms like Wenatchee-based Stemilt Growers Inc., Columbia Marketing International Corp, Northern Fruit Co. Inc., and Yakima-based Rainier Fruit Co., among others, send fruit to Russia one way or another.

“Right now, really from what I’m hearing, we are constrained by transportation and supply,” Baerveldt said. “In fact, importers have reported that they would have been able to ship 30% to 50% more this season, and shipments already to Russia are up 80% this year over last season. We are definitely in the growth stage.”

Baerveldt said some importers ship as much as 80% to 90% of the fruit they receive to customers in the interior of the country, not necessarily to Moscow and St. Petersburg.

The apple commission left Russia after an economic meltdown in 2000, but work by U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service staff, including and USDA agriculture specialist Eric Wenberg and Russian assistant Ksenia Evdokimov, convinced the commission to restart export promotions.

“They basically were the ones that dragged WAC back into Russia,” she said. “Eric came up to me and said, ‘People want your apples, and there is going to be tremendous amount of growth in that market.’”

“In 2004, I made my first trip to Russia in several years, and we went ahead and started up a program.”

Russia is now the fourth-largest export market for U.S. pears after Mexico, Canada and Brazil, said Kevin Moffitt, president and chief executive officer of the Pear Bureau Northwest.

From August through the first week of March, Moffitt said Northwest U.S. pear marketers exported 327,000 44-pound boxes to Russia, up 76% from the previous year’s shipments.

“I think it is still a market you have to be careful in,” Moffitt said. “A lot of shippers don’t want to ship there at all, and some of them are looking for most of the money if not all of the money up front. Very little credit is being offered, but if the relationship between the shipper and the importer evolves, we could see this market hit 500,000 cartons very easily.

“Used to be when we were just shipping to the Russia Far East eight or nine years ago, it was a market for lower grade fruit. It was kind of a situation that we will take anything you can give us for $12 per box.”

While the Russian Far East is generally more price conscious still, the western Russian market will take a mix of sizes and quality.

Moffitt said U.S. pear exports to Russia are the smooth-skinned green anjou, which is a variety not widely grown in Europe.

“What we are trying to do is get people to ripen it before they eat it because it can be a sweeter and juicier pear than some of the varieties shipped in there, like the conference pear,” he said. “We have more upside potential as we get retailers to understand that riper fruit will sell better.”

Moffitt said the pear bureau is considering conducting seminars about the benefits of preripening pears.

Northwest pear exporters ship a little less than half of their Russia-bound fruit to Vladivostok in the Russian Far East and the rest to fast-growing and generally more affluent western Russia. Distribution in western Russia flows from the port of St. Petersburg to Moscow and interior regions of the country.

Moffitt said Russia’s Far East is growing, and western Russia offers more promise in coming years.

“That’s where a lot of the imported fruit is being sold. They have the infrastructure and that sort of thing,” he said.

Moffitt said supermarket development in Russia has exploded since 1994.

“I think the supermarkets are really helping to drive a lot of the import business too,” he said.

Meanwhile, the value of exports of fresh California grapes jumped from $576,000 in 2006 to $3.7 million in 2007, according to USDA export statistics. The USDA reports that U.S. fresh grape exports totaled about 258,000 18-pound cartons in 2007, up from just 41,000 cartons in 2006.

Susan Day, vice president of international marketing for the California Table Grape Commission, Fresno, said grape exports have been increasing in Russia market for about three years.

“There is a lot of future potential there, because of the still relatively underdeveloped retail sector,” she said.