While it was still too soon to tell for sure in mid-March, shippers and industry officials said the earthquake and tsunami in Japan could affect produce exports to the country.
“We’re not sure, but there will probably be a negative effect on this year’s cherry program,” said B.J. Thurlby, president of the Wenatchee, Wash.-based Northwest Cherry Growers.
In 1995, the year of the Kobe, Japan, earthquake, the Northwest cherry industry actually wound up having a banner year in exports to the country, Thurlby.
But he points out that the 2011 quake and its aftermath are more widespread. A 20% drop in the Japanese stock market over five days makes that clear.
Nevertheless, Thurlby points out how resilient the Japanese people are.
“By mid-June, they may have enough infrastructure back together, and people may be saying, ‘We have to get back our life, and cherries are a big part of our life,’” Thurlby said. “We’re hoping for the best. We have a lot of friends over there, and we hope everybody’s safe.”
The Oppenheimer Group has donated $5,000 to the International Red Cross to aid victims of the Japan earthquake and tsunami.
Beyond that, Stemilt and other shipper will have to play wait-and-see.
“We assume we will have a marketplace, as Tokyo and much of the country is still intact,” he said. “Obviously, the mood will not be good, and could have a negative effect on the impulse market cherries live in.”
Loren Queen, marketing and communications manager for Yakima-based Domex Superfresh Growers, agreed.
“We send lots of cherries to Japan, and that will certainly be impacted, but we don’t know how or to what extent,” he said.
The Northwest ships about 350,000 to 400,000 boxes of cherries per year to Japan, Thurlby said.
Similarly ambiguous is the effect of the quake and tsunami on U.S. citrus exports to Japan, said Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual.
“It’s my understanding that orders that were in place prior to the earthquake are being honored,” he said. “Product that was in transit is being received.”
There are some reports, Blakely said, of orders being cancelled, primarily due to damaged infrastructure.
But he’s also heard that new orders have been placed.
“Most citrus shipments go into ports that were not damaged,” Blakely said. “ I’ve heard that shipments destined for ports that were damaged have been diverted.”
The full extent of the impact on California citrus, however, is yet to be determined, he said.
“It’s dependent on how fast power can be restored and distribution channels in Japan re-established,” he said. “The need for and demand for our citrus will be there. The limiting factor will be, ‘Can it be distributed in country?’”