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Bud Hover sees China as a prize for Washington agriculture.

The new state Department of Agriculture director says increasing the state’s exports to China would help sales of apples, cherries, potatoes and blueberries.

“Their people are just clamoring for what we have,” Hover said.

Hover, a hay and cattle farmer in Winthrop, Okanogan County, took over the reins of the agency in April.

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While visiting China with Gov. Jay Inslee, Hover said he saw Washington apples for sale although they are illegal in that country and fruit vendors can be fined for carrying them.

Washington has the potential to double or triple its exports to China, which is already a large customer, Hover said.

China may open its markets to Washington’s Red and Golden Delicious apples after Chinese New Year on Jan. 31, and it looks like fresh potatoes also will get access next year, he said.

There has been an embargo on Washington apples in China for the past two years, Hover said. And while the state already has a good market there for its processed potatoes, it doesn’t have access for its chipping potatoes and fresh potatoes, which make up about 20 percent of the Washington crop.

Chinese officials expressed strong interest in expanding trade with Washington, Hover said. Chinese consumers are looking for high-quality, safe products and are willing to pay upward of 80 percent more for those American products.

The state ships about $8.6 billion worth of food products out of its ports each year to other countries, Hover said. Residents consume only about 20 percent of the products Washington farmers grow. About 50 percent goes to the rest of the U.S., and the remaining 30 percent is exported.

Other markets that show some promise include Vietnam and the Middle East, Hover said. And Washington needs to continue to tend to the needs of Mexico and Canada, two of its major trading partners.

Labor, regulations and public perception are among the challenges Washington’s farmers face, Hover said.

Labor remains a top concern, he said. A big part of solving labor shortages falls on the federal government, and he said immigration reform is critical to the state’s agricultural industry.

Farmers need to have a consistent, skilled work force, Hover said. There needs to be a manageable program where foreign workers can be hired to do the work, collect their pay and then return to their homes.

The H-2A guest-worker program is cumbersome and uncertain, Hover said, adding that something that is simpler, faster and usable by smaller farmers is needed.

It’s also critical to make sure that future regulations do not become too burdensome, Hover said. While some regulation is necessary to ensure food safety and quality, legislators need to examine the consequences to agriculture before adopting new rules.

At the same time, agriculture can get overshadowed by companies in other industries, such as Boeing and Microsoft, Hover said.

Statewide, there has been a disconnect from agriculture in urban metro areas, even though every county has some agriculture, he said.

It’s a problem nationwide as fewer and fewer people have a connection to farms, he said, adding the state Department of Agriculture needs to better communicate the importance of agriculture as an economic driver and as a provider of good-quality food, he said.

Despite the challenges, Hover appears optimistic about the state’s future in farming. Agriculture, including processing, is up by about 6 percent from 2011, to an overall $49 billion last year, he said.

It’s significant the state is seeing revenue from agriculture increase even when the economy overall has been poor, he said.

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