Exports to Asia (copy)

Focus – Exports to Asia

Exports to Asia: still a promising but volatile adventure

Text Ron Barendse 
Photo Shutterstock

South Korea wants to curb its imports

When Covid broke out in 2020, sales to Asia came to a complete standstill for a few months before picking up again. Sales of nursery products to China and Japan have been quite good since, but many stakeholders remain reticent. Sales to South Korea actually also seem to have found their way up in recent years. The Asian countries have one thing in common though: all stakeholders describe selling to Asia as a volatile venture.

“Seven years ago, we ran into our first ever customer from South Korea at a trade fair,” says Wout Rademaker of nursery Bloemendaal in Boskoop. “At that time, I honestly thought we would never sell anything there, but now we are sending quite a lot there.”

The Korean buyer in question owns a large nursery and frequently visits the Netherlands. “Recently, he attended the Trade Fair Aalsmeer, where he also came to see us. I think that was already his fourth time this year. Before that, I had not seen him for a few years due to the Covid crisis. I know he also buys from other growers in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany.” Though the pandemic may have reduced the contact, it has not affected the path we took a few years ago, according to Rademakers: “Sales growth has been healthy”.

Dealim Tree Nursery

Several buyers from South Korea, a country of over 50 million people, are active in the Netherlands, but the name that comes up most often is that of Dealim Tree Nursery. A glance at the company’s website reveals that the company is engaged in trading and/or growing forest and hedge plants, plants with root balls and a range of consumer-grade plants. Moreover, according to those involved, the company has contracted several smaller ‘satellite growers’ to grow for them.

Bloemendaal mainly supplies starting material for conifers in P9 to South Korea. In addition, they also supply starting material to Dutch growers for continued growing and having South Korea as final destination.

Rademakers calls the growing conditions in the Asian country beneficial, but he did notice a striking difference: “The ratio of pot to plant in South Korea is different from ours; they use proportionally larger pots than we would in the Netherlands.” His explanation for this is that Dutch growers are mainly export oriented and looking to reduce transport costs by not using oversized pots. For growers in South Korea, however, a larger pot means a greater water and fertiliser buffer, among other things, so that good growing results can still be achieved with less frequent watering.

20-30 visitors

So, what if South Korean growers decided to produce their own starting material? Would that market fall away then? Rademakers: “Continued growing is easier than creating starting material, and I have indeed seen them try with little success. However, I’m not saying they couldn’t do it, mind you. When the Koreans visit us, they often come in groups of 20-30 people, who then swarm in all directions and take pictures all over the nursery. This means that they also take a lot of information home.”

Rademakers finds that transport there is not expensive, so that is no reason for them to stop buying plants in the Netherlands, he says. “A lot of containers from Asia are full when they reach Europe and mostly empty when they return. As a result, prices are low: a container now costs about EUR 1,500, and it holds 25,000 plants. That’s EUR 0.06 per plant.”

Using a middleman

Rademakers uses a middleman when exporting there, which he claims is common practice. One of the exporters to South Korea is Oriental Plants in Kudelstaart. Owner Frank van Klingeren says that, in 20 years of trading with customers in South Korea, he has never seen such an increase in sales. “Trade in that direction is busier than usual this year. I have no idea why; customers are just ordering more. And that actually includes everything: Vinca, Betulus, Thuja,” he adds.

Rinus Biemans of Green Inter Trade Export Services says: “The fact that exports to South Korea are rising may have to do with the relatively healthy economic situation there. Moreover, Dutch growers are frontrunners in terms of the width of their assortment.” He mentions the strict national requirements for exporting to South Korea. “Of China, Japan and South Korea, the latter country is the strictest,” he says. While he has rarely had rejects in the past, he does not consider that any guarantee for the future.

“We grow specifically for South Korea,” says Rademakers. “Pots imported into that country cannot contain sand, clay or bark, and the only way to achieve this is by potting plants separately.” Partly for this reason, nursery Bloemendaal plans to open a second location in Waddinxveen next year, which will be focusing more on exports to South Korea, among other countries.

On the rise

According to some, the fact that exports to South Korea are on the rise could put plants under increased scrutiny by the authorities upon entry. One of the persons involved, who prefers to remain anonymous, says: “The government in South Korea wants to curb its imports in order to protect domestic production. One way to do this is through stricter enforcement of import requirements, in which case growers may be in trouble”.

The Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA) reports that companies wishing to export to South Korea should reckon with many import bans, including on products with a growing medium. The government agency, which refers to its website for details on export requirements, warns exporting companies to be alert.

When the Covid crisis broke out, it first hit trade on China. In February 2020, a large number of containers of nursery products initially remained unsold. “But in the end, exports were not too bad,”  says one of the exporters on China who prefers not to give his name here. Meanwhile, he says, exports are back to 2019 levels.

An outdoor rose grower, who also prefers to remain anonymous, says that he received the same number of orders from China at the start of this year’s grub season as last year. Seeing too many uncertainties, he is reluctant to describe trade as stable though. The country’s phytosanitary requirements are strict, he says, meaning that lots from his nursery that have been approved by Naktuinbouw might still be rejected in China. “It is hard work, and trade is too erratic. I prefer to trade within the Netherlands,” he adds.

Covid crisis not over in China

China is still suffering heavily from the Covid crisis, according to Sjaak Walraven, sales representative at Boomkwekerij Fleuren, a tree nursery. China is a huge country, where travelling freely between different regions is not allowed. A case in point is one of his customers, to whom they had delivered fruit trees but who then could not get these trees to where they were supposed to be planted.

All-important, however, according to Walraven, are the import permits required to supply fruit trees, and these are the bottlenecks at present. “A Chinese customer seeking to import must apply for an import permit, and the outcome often takes months. Malus sales stalled years ago because China has become self-sufficient in this regard, and cherry sales are also slow at the moment.”

Verbeek Boomkwekerijen, another tree nursery, also has a contact who has been denied an import licence for trees for two years now. When asked whether this will change, Sales Manager Han Verbeek says: “There is very little we can do to influence that. We will have to wait and see.”

No market to ignore

Export figures show Japan to be a small but stable exporting country. One of the exporters recognises this picture. “Japan is currently facing economic problems, so companies are more cautious. But we have some stable customers who keep going, including garden centres and mail-order companies, as well as a few growers involved in the continued growing of plants,” he says.

On balance, China and Japan are showing no export growth, while South Korea exhibits only limited growth. Biemans calls Asia an erratic market: “A few years ago, a lot of Tilia went to China, and then, suddenly, it was over. In terms of sales, this is not a country to rely on, and the same goes for other Asian countries. But neither is it a market that we should all just ignore.” <


Sino-Dutch collaborations at a low ebb 

Several Dutch tree growers are active in China, but they are still suffering greatly from the Covid crisis. Just before the Covid crisis, Boomkwekerij Fleuren from Baarlo set up a small stone fruit nursery in Xian, China, with local partners. The Dutch company started the cooperation mainly because they expected the Chinese borders eventually to be closed to trees.

Sjaak Walraven, sales representative at Boomkwekerij Fleuren says he lacks insight into what is going on there now. “To get a good picture, you would really have to be there, but that’s not possible right now. There is a big cherry symposium in China in May. It would be nice if we could enter the country again by then.”

Verbeek Boomkwekerijen entered into a partnership with a Chinese tree nursery in 2016 under the name SalVer. “Our collaboration is at a low ebb,” admits Sales Manager Han Verbeek. “We never had the ambition to supply a lot there in the first place as obtaining an import licence would be becoming increasingly difficult. That is why we wanted to grow locally. We mainly brought knowledge into the country (one of the reasons why employee Steffi Verbeek had been in China since 2016, ed.), but because that’s not physically possible now, cooperation is difficult these days. The ties with our Chinese partner are strong, however, and we will resume our collaboration as soon as we can. Our relationship is still good.”

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