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Cherry growers want Seattle port to boost export capacity

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Officials from the Port of Seattle and city of Wenatchee discuss fruit exports with local growers at a roundtable discussion Wednesday. From left are Port of Seattle officials Mark Wen, John Creighton, Port CEO Tay Yoshitani and Wenatchee Mayor Frank Kuntz.

WENATCHEE — Cherry growers here want the Port of Seattle to provide more shipping containers, more cargo planes and better cold storage to ensure the state’s delicate export crop remains in top condition for Asian markets worth millions of dollars.

Growers told Seattle port officials visiting here Wednesday that the state’s largest shipping facility lags behind similar operations in Los Angeles and San Francisco where thousands of boxes of local cherries are trucked daily for export to Japan, China and other Pacific Rim countries.

We’re getting better shipping rates and better lift (cargo plane capacity) at California ports,” said Dave Martin, export sales manager for Wenatchee-based Stemilt Growers, one of the nation’s largest fruit companies. “At SeaTac, it’s tough to get enough capacity when we really need it.”

Port of Seattle officials held a roundtable discussion Wednesday with about 30 of North Central Washington’s top fruit growers and other industry and civic leaders. The Seattle port officials, including CEO Tay Yoshitani and three port commissioners, were on a three-day, seven-city tour of eastern Washington to discuss global trade and boost port support among growers and manufacturers east of the Cascades.

Port officials asked for open, honest discussion of shipping issues. Local fruit growers, particularly those with cherry orchards, were glad to oblige.

West Mathison, president of Stemilt, noted that 15 to 20 percent of the state’s $500 million cherry crop goes by air to export markets. With U.S. cherry consumption stagnant, he said, Pacific Rim markets in China, Japan and India become key to future industry growth — and so does the ability of the Port of Seattle to handle the seasonal surge of fruit exports.

In many ways, we’ve planted our future on your capabilities” to deliver a time-sensitive crop in good condition to distant markets, said Mathison.

Seattle port officials and growers agreed that air cargo carriers must bring in extra planes during peak harvest periods and that installation of some type of short-term refrigerated storage should be explored.

I’ve seen cherries stacked on the tarmac without refrigeration for hours and hours and hours,” said Martin. “Not acceptable.”

Port officials had no ready solutions to growers’ demands, but promised the issues would be studied.

Other topics discussed at Wednesday’s roundtable:

Increased competition — Canada and U.S. ports on the east coast are stepping up efforts to capture both export and import business. A widened and deepened Panama Canal, now under construction, will allow larger ships to bypass West Coast ports (including Seattle) to deliver goods directly to major ports on the east coast. The rebuilt canal is expected to be operational in 2015.

Harbor maintenance fees — A federal fee of $70 to $250 per container is assessed on cargo entering U.S. ports, but not on cargo imported through ports in Canada or Mexico and then transported by rail or truck to U.S. ports in mid-western states. Port officials sought support from growers in efforts to impose equivalent fees on imports entering the U.S. at border crossings in the middle of the country.

Mike Irwin: 665-1179

Reach Mike Irwin at 509-665-1179 or . Read his blog Everyday Business. follow him on Twitter at @MikeIrwinWW.