US cherry exports shrugging off tariff impacts?

China Cargo, a division of China Eastern Airlines, carried US cherry exports aboard a specially painted 777F in 2017. Photo: Port of Seattle

A 25% tariff on about $50 billion worth of Chinese imports into the US went into effect on 6 July, prompting retaliatory tariffs from China and sparking a trade war midway through the Pacific Northwest’s cherry season. Typically, cherry exports to China are a huge business during July and for the region generally – during 2017, at 24,537 metric tonnes, cherry exports made up 28% of total export volumes at Seattle-Tacoma Airport (SEA). And how are cherry exports faring under the new tariffs?

While complete data on the trade war’s impact on cherry exports will not be available until August results are in, air cargo operations at SEA suggest that exports remain robust in spite of the new tariffs. Sea-Tac’s Air Cargo Operations Manager, Ken Galka, told Cargo Facts that exports with Asian carriers at the airport lagged about 15% year-over-year during the first half of July, but the difference should be taken with a grain of salt, considering that “last year was such an exceptional crop.”

Tom Green, Senior Manager Air Cargo Development at the airport, added that among mainland Chinese carriers Air China Cargo, China Cargo Airlines, and Suparna, main-deck cherry exports aboard freighters “have by-and-large hung on, even past the tariff implementation.” However, Green also noted that some of the other carriers at the airport with trade routes into Asia are “hitting the pause button” on the export of cherries on main decks. Even with fewer “cherry charter” freighter shipments this year, Green said, “the majority overall throughout the year [moves] in passenger bellies,” and some 777s flying to Korea, for example, may depart with thirty to forty tonnes in the belly hold.

At least some of the cherries departing from SEA that would have been destined for Shanghai are instead finding their way to other Asia-Pacific destinations like Vietnam and Singapore, with at least one freighter making the unusual delivery to Tokyo Narita Airport (NRT), according to Galka.

What air cargo operators are seeing at SEA matches statements from the cherry shippers themselves. B.J. Thurlby, President of Northwest Cherry Growers in Yakima, Washington, told Capital Press last week that while exports to China have fallen “significantly” with the imposition of tariffs, export demand to more than forty other markets worldwide has been outstanding, making up 35% of total shipments. There are also fewer cherries to ship this year in general, considering that Thurlby said he expects 2018’s total crop to finish at more than 24 million boxes, compared to 2017’s record year of 264 million boxes. The smaller crop and high-quality harvest this year have managed to keep cherry prices up year-over-year, despite the tariffs, Thurlby said.

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