This may be the year California tree fruit finally makes its mark in Japan.

After decades of trying to break into this lucrative market, Japan has finally received what the industry hopes will be the first of many shipments of nectarines for the 2003 season.

“Japan has been a tough market for California tree fruit in past years,” stated Blair Richardson, president of the California Tree Fruit Agreement (CTFA), which administers domestic and international marketing programs on behalf of all California fresh peach, plum and nectarine growers.

Richardson noted that phytosanitary barriers, economic factors and a mismatched product mix have kept the industry from making significant market gains in Japan until this season. “Things are now lining up just right with the introduction of Summerwhite and SummerGold nectarines, which we know will meet with good acceptance in this market and some added assistance from the federal government. We are confident this shipment is the first of many more to come.”

The key to this season's optimism among tree fruit growers about their prospects in Japan is the addition of some $92,000 in government aid through a new federal program designed to help marketing efforts of specialty crops in foreign markets. The California Tree Fruit Agreement (CTFA) received word earlier this year that it would receive funding as part of the new Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops program. The lion's share of this funding is being used to fund a comprehensive pre-clearance program required by the Japanese government.

This pre-clearance program calls for a full-time inspector from Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to be in California inspecting fruit prior to shipment to Japan to ensure it meets the country's strict standards.

“In the past, the cost of the pre-clearance program was borne by the industry, more specifically, by the growers who wanted to ship fruit to Japan,” explained Richardson. “This is an expensive proposition, especially when the product is new and yet unproven in the market. As a result, there were few growers willing to take the risk to ship fruit to this new market.

“With the addition of the federal dollars to help with this program, we have greater interest and more effort on behalf of the industry to make the program work,” continued Richardson. “We are very grateful to the government for this much-needed support that will allow our industry to test the true potential of this market for California tree fruit. This is an excellent example of growers, packers, marketing orders and government agencies working together to achieve a common goal.”

Richardson noted this first shipment to Japan includes nearly 1,500 packages of Summerwhite, or white-fleshed, nectarines. “Our market research indicates that these low-acid, high sugar varieties are popular with consumers in Japan and we expect them to be in good demand. We are also promoting traditional varieties.”