In 2017, China was eager to import agricultural commodities from the U.S., including Washington state and the Yakima Valley.
China was the No. 1 export market for Northwest sweet cherries, importing more than 3 million 20-pound boxes from the 2017 crop, according to figures from the Northwest Cherry Growers.
It imported nearly $100 million in cherries from Washington state alone, putting cherries third among all Washington state exports to China in 2017, the state Department of Agriculture reported.
Even more hay — valued at $103.6 million — was shipped to China in 2017, making it No. 2 among all Washington state exports to China.
Dairy products and apples were also among Washington’s top 10 exports to China. Altogether, the state exported $594 million in agricultural products to China in 2017.
Just two years later, things have changed — for the worse.
An ongoing U.S. trade war has led to tariffs on many U.S. agricultural products, including several from Washington. They have contributed to drastic drops in exports to China.
Washington dairy exports to China dropped by 72 percent, for instance — from $25 million in 2017 to just $7 million a year later.
“Without a doubt, farmers and the agriculture industry have been among the hardest hit by the ongoing trade war between U.S. and China,” said Hector Castro, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture.
And things may get worse before they get better: Last week, China asked state-owned companies to stop purchasing U.S. agricultural commodities. That was its response to President Donald Trump’s plan to impose a 10 percent tariff on $300 billion worth of Chinese products.
It remains to be seen what impact China’s recent move could have on agricultural producers in Washington state and the Yakima Valley.
But one thing is clear — relief remains elusive for agricultural producers.
“It’s not something that will help our industry sell more fruit,” said Mark Powers, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, a Yakima-based organization that represents the tree fruit industry on public policy issues, such as trade.
For now, he said, China’s move to halt U.S. agricultural imports is most likely to hurt products purchased directly by state-owned entities — soybeans, for instance.
That’s not much comfort to the state’s farmers and growers, who have already endured double-digit tariffs on several products.
Washington state agricultural products exported to China declined in 2018 to $559 million, a 5.9 percent drop year over year, according to data from the state Department of Agriculture.
Cherry exports from Washington state to China in 2018 totaled $67.6 million, a drop of 32.2 percent from a year earlier. Apple exports also declined from $17.6 million to $13.5 million in 2018.
Still, despite the tariffs, China remains the third-largest market for Washington state agricultural products.
Keith Hu, international programs director for the Northwest Cherry Growers, estimates that exports to China this season were close to last year when China imported 1.7 million boxes. That was a notable drop from 2017.
“Getting products into China was much smoother,” Hu said.
A full-blown halt on agricultural imports by China won’t affect cherries, at least this year. “We are at the tail end of our season, and not many fruits are going overseas now,” he said.
As of last month, about 894,197 40-pound boxes of apples harvested last fall were shipped to China. That’s below the 1.1 million three-year box average, but better than anticipated, said Toni Lynn Adams of the Washington Apple Commission.
“The immediate impact is difficult to track because we’re at the end of the export season,” Adams said.
There was not an immediate impact on hay either, said Don Schilling, owner of Wesco International, an Ellensburg-based hay exporter.
“Everything on the water is already paid for,” he said, referring to current deliveries.
However, there could be long-term implications if trade issues are not resolved — namely, increased competition from other countries.
Chinese importers are likely seeking alternative sources for agricultural products, said Schilling.
Countries in South America and Africa grow hay and alfalfa. Dairy farmers from Australia, New Zealand and in Eastern Europe may capitalize on China’s trade issues with the U.S. And several countries grow cherries and apples, Powers said.
“If tariffs went away tomorrow, we’d still be dealing with the competitors that have been set up in the past year-and-a-half,” Schilling said.
That’s frustrating considering that China was a U.S. export market that showed so much potential two years ago.
“They were just scratching the surface of (its buying) potential,” Schilling said. “There’s no other market for hay that has the immediate demand that China does or the continued potential.”