Larger high-quality orchards needed for growing exports

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The US decided to import more varieties of Vietnamese fruit, creating further opportunities for the nation's fruit industry.

The market often pays high prices for imported fruit, but maintains strict quality standards. At the moment, it requires imported fruit to meet VietGap (Vietnamese Good Agricultural Practice) standards. However, orchards which meet VietGap standards are too small, Dr. Nguyen Minh Chau, director of the Southern Fruit Research Institute, told Thanh Nien Weekly in an interview.

Thanh Nien Weekly: The US recently decided to import more kinds of Vietnamese fruit under the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement between the two countries. How will this affect local fruit production?

Nguyen Minh Chau: The US often pays high prices for imported fruit, but places strict requirements on their quality. After dragon fruit, it will import rambutans, longans, litchis, mangoes and star apples from Vietnam. However, at the moment, the market is only accepting rambutans produced in Ben Tre Province, where farmers are currently meeting VietGap standards.

To be shipped to the US, fruit must be certified as complying with these standards. US vegetable quarantine experts inspect each shipment before providing codes to the fruits for export into their country.

It will be good for us if more of our fruit can infiltrate fastidious markets like the US.

The potential of the US market is very large. So farmers should consider export to the US as both an opportunity and a challenge. We have to improve the quality of our fruit so that we can increase our exports.

Can Vietnamese fruit growers meet US import requirements?

At the moment, the US is only accepting Ben Tre rambutans that have been grown according to VietGap standards. Our litchis and longans are very delicious, but they cannot be exported until they have met the standards. It takes us up to 18 months to implement VietGap, as we have to adjust our farmers' cultivation methods. Big money firms can quickly adapt to new standards, in just one or two months, but small-scale farmers need up to one year and a half.

At the moment, we have many fruit-growing areas. However, we have to upgrade our growing processes and improve our infrastructure to meet VietGap standards.

In the long term, we have to expand our VietGap-certified orchards to 5,000-7,000 hectares from the current 1,000 hectares. To this end, the government should provide training and market information to local farmers, which is allowed by the World Trade Organization. Provincial governments should really be more active in addressing this issue.

What is the biggest obstacle for the Vietnamese fruit industry?

The biggest shortcoming is that we don't yet have large specialized orchards. Fruit production in many areas meets VietGap standards, but the acreage is too small, so the export supply is still limited.

In order to boost exports, we need larger orchards which meet VietGap standards. Provincial governments should support farmers in doing this. VietGap is not a movement as many people think. It is essentially a visa which allows Vietnamese fruits to enter foreign markets.

Why is it hard for us to meet VietGap standards? Do we lack the capital? Or experience? Or guidance?

All of the above. Farmers cannot implement VietGap without any support. The government should give them access to preferential loans.

Farmers only receive instructions from fruit research institutes to implement VietGap at present.

What are some potential export markets for Vietnamese fruit?

European consumers pay top dollar for fruit. But Singapore and Hong Kong are closer to Vietnam and have big fruit demand. US consumers often pay high prices, but they're so far away and shipping costs are too high. Thus, we should focus on tapping the European, Singaporean and Hong Kong markets. We could be very competitive in these markets thanks to low transportation costs.

If quality is improved, Vietnamese pomelos, yellow mangoes and durians could compete with the same products of other countries in overseas markets.

What is the potential for Vietnam's fruit exports?

It's very good. Our fruit export is expected to increase 10 percent in 2011 compared to 2010.

Our fruits have also penetrated into Japan, which places strict requirements on quality and hygiene. Japan has imported our dragon fruit, while New Zealand is expected to allow Vietnamese mangoes to be sold there. We have made progress in fruit production, so the choosy markets are now accepting our produce.

South Korea has also allowed the importation of Vietnamese dragon fruit. To maintain a foothold in the choosy markets, we have to continuously improve our fruits' quality.

How does Vietnam compare to other ASEAN countries in terms of fruit exports?

Thailand's fruit export is better than ours, which is hardly surprising. We established the northern fruit research institute in 1990 and the southern fruit research institute in 1994. Meanwhile, Thailand began exporting fruit in 1975.

In the ASEAN region, we stand behind Thailand, which got into the game much earlier, and Indonesia, which has larger fruit-growing areas, and the Philippines, whose fruit production industry is backed by American companies with advanced technology and large capital resources.

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