(March 7) In a deal that could help U.S. fruit exporters, the U.S. and Colombia have concluded a free trade agreement, U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman said Feb. 27.

Currently, U.S. cherry, apple and pear exports are assessed a tariff rate of 15% ad valorem, or in proportion to the value, according to the Northwest Horticultural Council, Yakima, Wash.

Fruit imports from Andean Pack countries — Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela — already enter the U.S. duty-free.

Portman said the agreement is vital to efforts to boost free trade, reduce drug trafficking, build democracy and speed economic development in the Andean region.

In 2005, Colombia and the U.S. had $14.3 billion in two-way trade, and U.S. exports of agricultural products to that nation totaled $667 million.

U.S. imports of Colombian agricultural products of more than $1.1 billion were dominated by bananas and coffee.

The value of Colombia’s banana trade with the U.S. was $145 million in 2005, up 19% from 2004. Colombia’s plantain shipments to the U.S. totaled nearly $50 million in 2005, up 18% from 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Mangoes, lemons, limes and blackberries were also shipped from Colombia to the U.S. last year, but the export value of each of those commodities was well below $500,000.

Leading U.S. exports last year were grains, cotton and soybeans. U.S. apple exports to Colombia topped $6 million in 2005, compared with $2.8 million for grapes and $1.6 million for pears, according to the USDA.

Nancy Foster, president of the U.S. Apple Association, Vienna, Va., said Colombia’s tariff on apples was 15%.

“We would very much like to get that 15% tariff reduced and have free-market access,” she said.

Foster said apple growers awaited implementation of the Central America Free Trade Agreement, which is expected to be take effect on a country-by-country basis this year.

“We are supporting free trade that can gain market access for U.S. apples, not just tariff reduction, but also phytosanitary issues, to get real and true access,” she said.