New Zealand is on the cusp of exporting its first fresh persimmons to China after 12 years attempting to gain market access, catching the end of what has been a "reasonably solid" campaign for the industry.
New Zealand Persimmon Industry Council manager Ian Turk told Fresh Fruit Portal the process had been a "long effort" that culminated in Chinese auditors inspecting operations in June, and an agreement on protocols that was signed by the Asian country's authorities last month.
"In fact they start in October in the orchard as soon as the fruit starts forming on the trees for pest management...we've got phytosanitary requirements through packing and a cold treatment process that we have to follow.
"The fruit has been through all the processes – the auditors saw all the fruit coming out of the cold treatment, so in effect we’ve got fruit sitting in the store ready to go. As soon as our importers in China get an import permit then the fruit will be off."
Gisborne-based exporter First Fresh will send the trial shipment of the region's persimmons, to be be marketed by Foodview which is a New Zealand specialist marketing company that operates in China and the USA.
In a release, First Fresh managing director Ian Albers said his China strategy was to start small and gain a clear understanding of consumers before taking the next step.
"We’ve had interest from China in New Zealand persimmon for years, and the growers are excited to see they’ve finally gained access to a market with potential at such a scale," Albers said.
"China could fuel decades of growth for the New Zealand persimmon industry, but only if we get it our approach right. That’s why we’re only exporting a small test shipment into Shanghai in the first year."
In the release, Foodview's John Miller said the successful conclusion of negotiations demonstrated a high level of trust by the Chinese Government in New Zealand’s food products, but the next step was to reach consumers.
"We want to make sure we understand the market and consumer preferences to ensure the market is ready for us before we arrive in force," he said, adding the first shipment would be used to get extensive customer feedback through 250 retail stores as well as China’s hugely popular WeChat social media platform.
"It’s critical we understand how Chinese consumers react to New Zealand persimmon. We grow a firmer variety than the native Chinese persimmon, which is typically eaten when it’s softer and juicier.
"We need to understand what Chinese consumers think of the difference and learn how to educate them to appreciate New Zealand product."
Turk said the New Zealand persimmon harvest runs from late April through May.
"The [China-oriented] fruit would have been harvested in early May, packed, put through cold treatment for 35 days and out of treatment – so that’ when it was packed and we’re right at the end of our season now so we’ve probably got another few weeks of exporting left.
"We put aside specific fruit for China that had been through the orchard protocols and that would have been packed over a two or three-day period.
Season summary, pending U.S. market access
Turk said the industry was previously forecasting an increase on last year's export crop, but now it was looking like it would be similar to the 320,000 4kg trays shipped last year.
"At the start of the season we had some pretty bad weather in New Zealand with a couple of cyclones go through, and they did go through the growing areas and I was a bit concerned then about the effect all the rain would have had on our fruit," he said.
"That did show through with some humidity markings later in the season."
He said around exports would be around 60% of the total crop volume.
"We think that without the weather conditions we would have had more going to export. We do have set grade standards for export," he said.
He said it had been a "reasonably solid year" for persimmon exports with strong demand in key markets like Australia and Thailand.
Other important markets include Singapore and Malaysia.
"There's competition there from other fruit of course and other persimmons in Australia - we come after them. And we seem to have had good sales there."
In August last year the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) published a proposed rule allowing access for New Zealand persimmon imports.
Usually after public comment periods (in this case, they closed on Oct. 25, 2016) the wait isn't too long before a rule is published. But with the change in the U.S. Administration there have been delays in the publication of new rules.
"The rules have been drafted, they’re sitting there in the States and they're just waiting to be promulgated," Turk said.
"It’s just a normal admin procedure and I can understand things would slow down when there’s a change in administration like that.
"We're confident it’ll go through in time for our next season. We’ve just come out of this season so there is a bit of time ahead of us."