China could upset the apple cart

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By MARK GLEASON

Apples may not fit into most Americans’ image of China. Tea or rice, perhaps, but apples?

We tend to think of apples as All-American fruit. “As Chinese as apple pie” sounds wrong, somehow.

At second glance, though, apples and China fit together pretty well.

Ancient cultivation. Apples evolved in the mountainous forests of Kazakhstan, right across the backyard fence from western China. Chinese farmers were cultivating apples thousands of years before the Middle East, Europe and finally America jumped on the bandwagon.

These days, the leading apple-growing country in the world, by a large margin, is China. The United States doesn’t even come close.

China dominates the world market in apple juice and exports more fresh apples all the time.

Change in last decade. China’s explosion onto the world apple market in the last decade has changed the competitive environment for all exporting countries, including the United States.

Last September, I saw China’s apple industry up close. I toured apple orchards and storage facilities in central China’s Shaanxi Province with Sun Guangyu, a plant pathologist at Northwest Sci-Tech University in Yangling.

The contrasts with our apple industry are fascinating.

The average Shaanxi apple orchard runs about one-tenth of an acre, but many individual orchards are packed together in the prime apple-growing regions of the province. One county alone grows 50,000 acres of apples, which is more than most of the major apple-producing states in the United States.

Crops among trees. Inside a Shaanxi orchard, the contrasts with U.S orchards are striking.

Chinese farmers usually grow additional crops, such as chili peppers or edible soybeans, between the tree rows in young orchards.

The rows of trees are spaced so tightly that machinery can’t drive between them, so pesticide sprayers are pulled through the orchard by hand.

The almighty Fuji. Shaanxi orchards are devoted to a single apple variety, Fuji. With its sweet taste and crisp texture, it is preferred by Asian consumers.

Bags on trees? Fruit bagging is even more eye-catching. When it’s no bigger than a blueberry, each apple is enclosed in a two-layer plastic bag. The opaque outer bag comes off a few weeks before harvest, allowing the apple peel to darken to its proper color. The inner bag is discarded at harvest.

The beauty of the bags is in what they keep out – insects and diseases, resulting in picture-perfect apples.

You won’t see plastic bags on apples in American orchards. The reason is that our labor costs are astronomical compared to China’s.

Government help. Why have Chinese farmers switched over to apple growing in such a massive way? Their central government not only offers financial incentives for developing new orchards, it has also created a network of trained advisers to provide technical support, the Chinese version of the U.S. Extension Service.

As far as I can tell, the Chinese government had two main motives for this gigantic apple-expansion binge: develop a new, high-value export crop, and help farmers make enough money to stay on their tiny farms.

Incentive to farm. An amazing 70 percent of Chinese still live in rural areas in this overcrowded country, and the government would like to keep them there.

With fast-growing populations nearing 20 million each, Shanghai and Beijing are already among the world’s largest and most densely populated cities.

One thing Chinese farmers share with American farmers is the need to make a living. In Shaanxi Province, the change-over to apples seems to be a hopeful step in that direction.

(The author is an extension plant pathologist at Iowa State University.)

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