(Sept. 23) WASHINGTON, D.C. — Exports of U.S. agricultural products increased by $2 billion in fiscal 2001, with California once again leading the way.

Exports of fruits and vegetables U.S. showed slight increases from 2000 to 2001. The U.S. exported $4.51 billion in fresh and processed vegetables — up from $4.44 billion in 2000 — and $3.51 billion in fresh and processed fruits — up from $3.38 billion.

Marketing agents specializing in exports admit they don’t know if that growth can be sustained in an environment of increased competition, economic downturns and the ongoing threats of trade sanctions.

“We had a very strong export market, both in Japan and Europe,” said Richard Kinney, executive vice president of Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Packers Inc. “If we had a stronger juice market, we could have had an even better year. But are we concerned about those markets? You betcha. They’ve made it a very political process.”

Agricultural exports showed increases despite a worldwide economic downturn, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

California, by far the largest exporter of agricultural products, at $8.7 billion, shipped about $3.89 billion in fresh and processed fruits and vegetables to other countries. Washington followed at $1.05 billion.

FASTEST GROWING

In addition to having the most agricultural exports of any state, California’s 2001 exports also increased the most, up $717 million over 2000. Much of the gain was in tree nuts, for which U.S. production rose 15% in 2001. California accounted for 92% of U.S. tree nut production in 2001. The state exported about $1.03 billion in tree nuts in 2001, up from approximately $879 million in 2000.

Idaho was the third-ranked vegetable-exporting state, with $257.1 million, primarily potatoes in french fries and other processed forms.

Florida ranked third in the fruit-export category, at $527.5 million.

POLITICS

For Kinney, the political turbulence includes an ongoing tug-of-war with Spanish clementines, shipments of which were suspended in December after multiple live Medfly larvae were found in several states. The action, which Spanish growers said was an overreaction to questionable findings, prompted a lawsuit by the Spanish growers against the USDA.

“There’s insinuation that if Spanish clementines are not allowed back in the states, the Spanish would try to (retaliate),” Kinney said.

EUROPEAN TARIFFS

Other political storm clouds threaten continued growth of the export market, however, not the least of which is the prospect of 100% tariffs on certain fruits and other products shipped to the European Union in retaliation for higher duties on steel imported into the U.S.

“From our perspective, I think it’s always possible that you’re going to have blips on the radar screen that are related to trade tensions in specific circumstances,” said Jim Cranney, vice president of the Vienna, Va.-based U.S. Apple Association, which has voiced its concerns about the threatened tariffs.

Cranney pointed to increased competition, in the apple business, from China and New Zealand.

“It’s getting tougher, to be sure,” he said. “All these industries (in other countries) have their sights set on the same markets that we do. Very recently, China has really jumped into the export markets and they are, I think, a threat to some of our industry’s market share.”

But Cranney said the potential for finding new and profitable markets for apples remained good.

“With the EU tariffs aside, I think our prospects are quite good. We’ve been spending a lot of time paying attention to the quality of our product. On our promotions program, we’re going to go from $90 million to $110 million for our Market Access Program in fiscal 2003. That’s going to result in increases in sales.”

AFFECTING FLOW

Nevertheless, concerns remain.

“It’s a big monkey wrench,” Mark Powers, vice president of the Yakima, Wash.-based Northwest Horticultural Council, said of the potential sanctions against apples and pears from the Pacific Northwest. “It has, in effect, shut off our exports to the EU for apples. Also, we have to realize we’re reaching the end of our season. But when it was announced in March that this 100% tariff would be applied to apples, it has periodically shut down the flow. Sometimes, as they have readjusted the dates (to possibly apply sanctions), importers will take the risk again and bring in some product. But it certainly has affected our flow.”

Ken Gilliland, manager of international trade for the Newport Beach, Calif.-based Western Growers Association, said steep tariffs on California fruits and vegetables likely would have devastating results.

“Putting a substantial duty would impact our ability to market our products in those countries,” he said. “Like everyone else, we face new tariffs and have to get them down. We also have to get the subsidies that the EU has in place down.”

Wavering exchange rates also can leave fallout, particularly in the Far East, which has been slowly climbing out of a prolonged downturn, Gilliland added.

“We keep a close eye on Japan,” he said. “Southeast Asia is a pretty good market for a lot of our commodities, but Canada is the single largest. The fluctuation of the dollar has a lot to do with it.”

LOOKING NORTH

For some commodities, Canada practically is the only export market.

The share of U.S. watermelon exports that go to Canada, for instance, is 98.5%, said Wendy McManus, marketing director for the Orlando, Fla.-based National Watermelon Promotion Board.

“Canada really is an ideal market for U.S. watermelons,” she said. “We have proximity on our side. We’re able to reach retail shelves nearly as quickly as we can reach the northern U.S. retail shelves.”

The board is pondering other markets, however, she said. The trick is clearing logistical hurdles.

“We do have some export opportunities in Europe and Japan, and we’re looking right now at what the barriers are,” McManus said. “The bigger concerns are those of packaging and shipping. Japan is 12 days minimum by boat from California.”

Tariffs may be an obstacle to shipping melons to Europe, McManus added.

“We don’t yet have a handle on tariffs and the markets in Europe,” she said. “We have to make sure that, with the costs of shipping this heavy product, it’s worth our while to ship to Europe.”

2001 U.S. AG EXPORTS

VEGETABLES
Fresh and processed; U.S. total — $4.15 billion.

State
California — $2.07 billion
Washington — $461.4 million
Idaho — $257.1 million
Wisconsin — $220.5 million
Minnesota — $176.6 million
Oregon — $161.6 million
Florida — $146.6 million
Michigan — $127.9 million
North Dakota — $111.4 million
New York — $92.5 million


FRUIT
Fresh and processed; U.S. total — $3.51 billion.

State
California — $1.819 billion
Washington — $592.8 million
Florida — $527.5 million
Oregon — $101.1 million
Michigan — $79.3 million
New York — $64.4 million
Hawaii — $56 million
Texas — $41.1 million
Arizona — $31.5 million
Maine — $24.4 million

Source: USDA