China represents one of the great unexplored markets for Northwest pears, but that may be about to change.

The country, approved for access in February, represents a significant untapped market for Northwest exporters, marketers said.

“We’re getting our paperwork in order to ship to China this season,” said Suzanne Wolter, director of marketing at Rainier Fruit Co., Selah, Wash. “It will be interesting to see how that comes together and where the opportunities really are,” she said.

With only 15,000 cartons shipped in the first few months after being approved, Kevin Moffitt, president and chief executive officer of Pear Bureau Northwest, said marketers were being cautious in the early period after being approved for export. Chinese officials are very vigilant about checking fruit for possible rots, so exporters were very careful with the fruit they sent to China.

“We didn’t reach the targets we wanted to, but it was the tail end of our season,” he said.

For the 2013 season, Moffitt said shipments may reach or exceed 100,000 cartons.

Mike Nicholson, sales representative with Columbia Marketing International, Wenatchee, said the growing middle class in developing countries around the world gives reason for optimism for pear export markets.

“We think we’ve got a good opportunity with red pears in China and the Far East, which is a new market for us,” he said.

Red varieties are expected to be popular in China, Moffitt said.

Starkrimson may lead the export efforts to China in September, with shipments expected to continue for several weeks.

“We’re still exploring the cold chain and distribution chain in China,” Moffitt said.

Retailers in China that are expected to be customers for U.S. pears should have their cold chain in place, so initial sales may run heavier to retailers than to wholesalers, Moffitt said.

Red varieties, including starkrimson and red anjous, may account for up to 40% of shipments to China, but green anjous still will be a key item for China.

Consumer education of retailers and consumers in the China will be a priority.

China could crack the top ten list of export destinations for Northwest pears this year and within the top five within five years, Moffitt said.

“It will certainly be one of our fastest-growing markets,” Moffitt said.

Mexico and Canada dominate export shipments of Northwest pears, followed by Russia and Brazil.

Other growth opportunities for export destinations include Russia and India, he said. The Middle East also continues to show increases in U.S. pear consumption, he said.

Latin America will continue to be a very critical market for Northwest pear exporters, Moffitt said.

The bureau is active in 38 export markets, which can include everything from point-of-sale materials to a marketing representative calling on traders.

Moffitt said the bureau has 18 contracted marketing companies who help promote Northwest pears.

After the U.S. cracked the China market and overcame Chinese objections to the threat of fire blight, Moffitt said exporters hope Korea and Japan also will allow access to U.S. pears.