(Nov. 15) As China continues to build its infrastructure and develop its citrus industry, Sunkist Growers Inc. hopes to grow along with them.

The Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based citrus cooperative, which in early November appointed Mark Tompkins to succeed the outgoing Rick Eastes as director of global sourcing for its Sunkist Global LLC venture, sees China as a potential source of citrus for its world markets.

That’s long-term, though, said Mike Wootton, the co-op’s vice president of corporate relations.

“We talk with them all the time,” said Wootton, who in April toured citrus production facilities and met with growers in China. “China is investing significantly … in plantings of navel oranges that are more attractive in global and regional markets in Asia, gravitating away from being exclusively a mandarin producer that they’ve historically been.”

China already has more citrus acreage than any other country, but the country’s production efficiencies lag behind that of other countries, Wootton said.

“Their productivity is 27% of ours on a per-acre basis,” he said. “So what you’re going to see there is not so much an acreage expansion but an increased productivity and efficiency per-acre. Eventually, they are going to be, potentially, a very significant player in the marketplace, both in China and the regional markets of Asia.”

Although Sunkist plans to continue dialogue with growers there, any potential global sourcing relationship will hinge on the industry increasing efficiency standards, Wootton said.

China also is an important customer of Sunkist, Wootton said, adding that Sunkist shipments have increased from 200,000 cartons of navels and valencias in 2000 — when the market was first opened — to nearly 5 million last year. By comparison, Japan, which traditionally has been Sunkist’s largest export market on the Pacific Rim, took in between 7 million and 8 million cartons a year ago, Wootton said.

“We would expect that it’s just going to continue to grow,” he said. “We have more orders from China than we have fruit to fill it with. For those export markets, you have to have a very high-quality, durable fruit that can make the 21-day shipment and to have sufficient volume to meet those demands is a challenge itself.”