Guojian Liang is both friend and competitor to Central Washington. For four years, he's been buying apples from Wenatchee and selling them across China. During a one-month span...

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GUANGZHOU, China — Guojian Liang is both friend and competitor to Central Washington.

For four years, he’s been buying apples from Wenatchee and selling them across China. During a one-month span in September 2003, his company imported 10,029 boxes, a feat that garnered an award from Gov. Gary Locke during a visit last year.

His company, Shunfeng Trading, also exports Chinese apples to Singapore, Malaysia and other countries.

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“The Chinese Fuji can dominate in those countries,” he says. “The cost is less and the quality is good.”

In fact, the Chinese Fuji already dominates in Singapore and Malaysia, as well as in Thailand and the Philippines — all markets where Washington’s growers have lost market share in the past decade.

Across the Pacific, growers have watched as globalization raced ahead along with China’s growing economic prowess.

Prosser farmer Larry Olsen recalls first reading in the early 1990s about China’s emerging apple industry.

“The tone of the report was almost condescending,” he remembers.

Those days are gone.

China overtook the United States as the world’s largest apple producer by the early 1990s. Since then, production has quadrupled and exports have skyrocketed by more than 1,700 percent.

“Anyone who underestimates the Chinese is a fool,” says Olsen. “The level of awareness is growing; we’ve passed the point of denial,” says Jim McFerson of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, which is leading a broad-based effort to improve technology to make American apples more competitive.

Meanwhile, China is moving ahead. In upcoming trade talks, the Chinese are expected to press the United States to open its markets to their apples.

This country has long banned Chinese apples on grounds they can carry pests that endanger American crops. In contrast, U.S. apple exports to China and Hong Kong measure nearly 2 million boxes annually.

“Their economic strength has increased and they are doing a full-court press to get access where they don’t have access,” said Desmond O’Rourke, a researcher and consultant who has long followed China’s apple development.

But despite the staggering growth of its apple industry, China still faces challenges.

“I think we can compete, but we need to make comparable investments in the way we do things,” Olsen says. “We have to figure out a way to make ourselves better producers.”