(Dec. 15) Statements by a Washington apple grower wary of Wal-Mart’s expansion into China set off a controversial buzz in the state’s apple industry but may have led to more open communication with the world’s largest retailer.

A Dec. 5 story picked up by The Associated Press quotes Barclay Crane, board president of the Washington State Horticultural Association, as saying Wal-Mart’s 22 stores in China “are a potential Trojan Horse” that could hurt Washington apple growers.

According to the AP story, Crane said the stores could allow Wal-Mart eventually to bring low-priced Chinese fuji apples into the U.S. to compete with domestic supplies.

Crane, who operates Brewster, Wash.-based Crane & Crane Inc., made public a fear some grower-shippers have both of the potential damage that low-price Chinese imports could have as well as the possibility that Wal-Mart could become a conduit for Chinese apples.

Grower-shippers need merely point to the declining California garlic industry as an example of how damaging could be an influx of Chinese product.

A FRIEND

But Bruce Peterson, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for perishables for the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer, emphasized that Wal-Mart is a friend to domestic producers of apples and every other produce item.

“Wal-Mart is the largest receiver of Washington apples probably in the world,” Peterson said. “We’re very interested in marketing domestic produce.”

Besides the fact that importing Chinese fujis is illegal, Peterson said, Wal-Mart has no intention of doing so.

Peterson, who was caught off-guard by Crane’s comments in the AP story, admitted to being surprised and a little disappointed by them. But he spoke to both Crane and a staff representative of the Washington State Horticultural Association to clarify the issue. He said the discussions were positive and showed how committed Wal-Mart is to American agriculture.

“I totally understand why Barclay would have thought the way he did without knowing more about us,” Peterson said. “One of my jobs is to make sure U.S. growers understand how much we do to support and promote American agriculture.”

One way Peterson will do that is by speaking at the association’s annual meeting in December 2004.

Crane and representatives of the horticultural association could not be reached for comment.

RELUCTANT

Washington grower-shippers were reluctant to talk on record about Crane’s comments or the AP story. Many of them either sell to Wal-Mart or supply customers who sell to the retailer.

One grower-shipper said he wasn’t concerned about Wal-Mart because the retailer is a global company and that means it will have locations throughout the world. He said he had a good relationship with Wal-Mart.

Another said it also was a possibility that Wal-Mart’s 22 stores could bring more U.S. apples into China rather than the other way around.

But others were more wary.

One grower-shipper said many apple growers — not just those in Washington — are worried about Chinese fujis in general and Wal-Mart’s expansion into China in particular. That grower-shipper pointed out that Chinese fujis already have made their way into Canada, one of the biggest markets for Washington apple growers.

Another cautious grower-shipper pointed out that because Wal-Mart is such a major customer of U.S. growers, any alignment between the retailer and Chinese growers could have significant repercussions on U.S. producers.

TRAPPED

Overall, many grower-shippers said they felt trapped between the positive relationship they have with Wal-Mart and fear of what would happen if Wal-Mart brought in Chinese fujis.

“Everyone’s worried about the possibility, but everyone’s afraid to say anything that will upset Wal-Mart,” one grower-shipper said.

But West Mathison, executive vice president of Wenatchee-based Stemilt Growers Inc., said U.S. growers shouldn’t be hasty in criticizing Wal-Mart. In the AP story, he pointed out that during the late 1990s the retailer paid $3-5 more per box for red delicious apples than the $13 the rest of the industry paid.