California cherries may open path to Japan

Maybe California farmers try harder; and maybe that's what helps make the state No. 1 in United States agriculture exports. The state's most recent effort was the May-June airlift of more than $4 million worth of California cherries to Japan. Over 170,000 lugs (each weighing 18 pounds) were shipped from near Lodi, Calif., as a result of a new US-Japan agreement to end the US cherry ban.

Historically, Japan has forbidden California cherries to enter before July 1 each year. That has been a protective measure for Japanese growers, whose crops do not mature until after that date. Yet because of earlier maturity of crops in the US, the July 1 date was always too late for American shippers.

The latest US-Japan agreement solved some of the problem by setting shipping dates for cherries between May 25 and June 7. This new Japanese cherry acceptance season will expand slightly in 1988-89. In 1990, the Japanese restrictions will be lifted.

The 10 US cherry shippers who formed the California Cherry Export Association to work within the Japanese pest-free restraints expect this export market to broaden. The current US cherry shipment was widely oversold in Japan, even at retail prices of about $4 a pound.

But California's cherry growers aren't the only ones eyeing the Japanese food market. The state's rice farmers of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys are closely watching events in Japan.

At present, Japan bans all rice imports except a minuscule amount from Asian sources (about 0.2 percent of its consumption, according to the US Department of Agriculture) to satisfy consumer preference for glutinous rice used in desserts. But US rice growers believe that even with higher transportation costs, their in-demand strains could compete favorably in Japan because of low prices. Rice in Japan at retail levels is now priced at least three three times as high as rice in the US.

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