Historically, international trade issues have galvanized our state’s congressional delegation. Many wondered if that would still be the case today. Fortunately, it seems to be.
While Democrats and Republicans are at one another’s throats on most issues these days, it is gratifying when it comes to promoting our state’s products internationally, they coalesce.
Boeing is our state’s largest exporter and has strong congressional backing when it comes to leveling the playing field with Europe’s Airbus. In 2017, Washington’s Department of Commerce reported aircraft, including engines and parts, accounted for $41.8 billion (54.3 percent of Washington’s total exports).
However, recently the focus has shifted to agriculture.
Washington is the third-largest exporter of food and agricultural products in the nation. Among our top exports are fresh fruits such as cherries, apples and pears. Thirteen percent of the state’s economy comes from agriculture and the food and agriculture industry employs 140,000 people.
Last month, Washington’s delegation urged the Trump administration to resolve the trade dispute with China because of the devastating impact from stiff Chinese retaliatory duties on cherries.
“Growers in Washington State, by far the largest producer of sweet cherries in the U.S., saw their bumper crop lose $86 million in value overnight,” Fox News reported last year. Unlike apples, potatoes and wheat, cherries cannot be stored for months while exporters find new markets. The window between harvest and sale is a few weeks.
When China’s tariff went from 10 percent to 50 percent last July — right in the middle of the harvest — exports to China went from the most profitable to the pits. For example, Washington Fruit and Produce Company in Yakima watched exports plunge 54 percent after the tariffs were raised.
“It’s made it extra painful because Chinese consumers pay a premium for American produce,” Fox News added.
Now, all dozen members of Washington’s delegation are pushing to open apple imports in Japan, a country which puts a wall around its farmers to protect them for foreign competition.
With U.S.-Japan trade talks likely to start this month, Washington’s congressional delegation is asking U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer to work on removing Japanese barriers to Washington apples which have been long-standing.
In a March 5 letter to Lighthizer, our congressional delegation, led by Rep. Dan Newhouse (R) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D), calls out Japan for “overly restrictive” sanitary and phytosanitary policies that have drastically inhibited Washington growers’ “ability to ship apples to this high-priority market for decades,” Dan Wheat, correspondent for the Capital Press, wrote recently.
Wheat reported that our orchardists are a little suspicious of Japan’s motives. Dave Martin, export sales manager at Stemilt Growers, told the Capital Press that for decades the Japanese have done just that, used phytosanitary rules (international certification of plant and fruit safety) to protect its apples.
“We have a proven scientific approach that has been proposed to Japan and Japan needs to consider it,” Martin added.
Washington apple growers have long sought meaningful access to Japanese markets, but restrictive import requirements have prevented them from gaining a foothold. Since 2003, the United States has won two World Trade Organization disputes against these restrictive policies, but significant technical trade barriers on apples remain in place.
Washington grows roughly 67 percent of all United States apples and is responsible for nearly 90 percent of total U.S. apple exports. Martin said there’s potential for a 1 million-box market if protocols change.
Hopefully, a unified Congress will make a difference for our state’s farmers this year. It certainly can’t hurt.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.