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Free trade lifts cherry sales to Korea

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In March, a free trade agreement between the U.S. and South Korea went into effect. Only partway through the state’s cherry season, export numbers to South Korea have already topped those from last year.

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Washington cherry growers are seeing benefits from a free trade agreement with South Korea just months after it went into effect.

The state has shipped 368,000 boxes of cherries to the Asian country as of last week, which compares with 171,000 boxes shipped by the same time last year. The shipment to South Korea for the entire cherry season last year was 355,000 boxes.

We’ve already surpassed our expectations and we have another month and a half to go,” B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers and the Washington State Fruit Commission, said Friday.

He projects the state could ship about a half-million boxes of cherries to South Korea by the end of the season, which would solidify the country’s position as the cherry industry’s fourth largest importer behind Canada, Hong Kong/China and Taiwan.

The industry projects that it will ship about 20 million boxes overall.

Korea has been the brightest spot in the season so far,” Thurlby said.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., highlighted those strong numbers Friday during a tour of F.C. Bloxom Co., a Seattle-based export distributor that ships cherries and other products to South Korea.

Exports mean jobs in Washington state,” Cantwell said in a news release. “That’s why we fought so hard to get this new trade deal done to open up new export opportunities for Washington state products and to support Washington jobs. Four months ago, our trade agreement with South Korea went into effect, and already our cherry exports to that country have doubled. This agreement was a win for Washington jobs and will continue to bring good news to our export economy.”

Under the free trade agreement, which went into effect in March, a 24 percent tariff on cherries was removed.

Issaquah-based Costco, which has several stores in South Korea, passed the savings to its customers, prompting many other retailers to do the same, Thurlby said.

Four years ago, it wasn’t unusual for Korean consumers to pay $10 to $13 for less than a pound of fruit. The price drop, along with increased marketing by the Northwest Cherry Growers contributed to a positive response from Korean consumers.

Suddenly, you have a product that is more affordable for a broader group of consumers,” Thurlby said.