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China Tariffs In North Central Florida: Bitter For Wine, Sweeter For Honey Citrus

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16 different types of wines from Island Grove Wine Company were displayed at the welcome center. Blubbery wine is their signature chosen to be exported to China in 2013.

Spring is the time farmers usually plan to invest more in machinery and their crops.

The recent discussion of tariffs and trade relationship with China could add more stress to that decision.

Local farmers say, unlike soybean growers and pork farmers, it’s too early to tally the losses or see any indirect effects. But, they agree it’s never late to invest in new technology and crop research. Therefore, they continue to make the most out of the local markets while hoping tension won’t escalate.

As the sun was coming up over Hawthorne on a recent morning, immigrants at Island Grove Wine Company started to pick fresh and organic blueberries. Some waltzed with the vibrant Mexican folk music as they carried overloaded buckets back to the truck and drove them to the winery.

China is a tough market for one winery

Blueberries bountifully dropped into their buckets like a rain splash onto the surface of a still lake. Back in the 10,000 square foot winery, the company’s general manager Sarah Aschliman was tasting her wine quality before she heard about the new tariff.

The last drop makes the cup run over. Aschliman said the tariff of 15% could be a deal-breaker.

“It was 48 percent on grape wines and 78 percent on fruit wines,” Aschliman said of the 2013 exporting taxes. At the time the company made its first shipment to Singapore and China, it had produced wine for only 3 years.

She said her wines – which were sold as $60 a bottle compared to a $12 to $15 for one in the US – struggled to outweigh cheaper the Australian or French wines on one same Chinese shelf.

“It wasn’t a huge portion of our yearly revenue. We would call it a day… We wouldn’t export anymore,” Aschliman said, taking long pauses and sighs as if she were still facing the decision. They stopped exporting in the same year they started.

Over the next few years, the company expanded from North Central Florida to the national market. “I don’t think [President Trump] would say ‘Let’s push to keep you local.’ He would say ‘Let’s make your companies work and get your product where it needs to be,'” Ashliman said.

General Manager of Island Grove Winery Company Sarah Aschliman is standing in front of fermentation tanks. She said it takes blueberries 2 to 3 weeks in these tanks before they bottle the juice. Every 5000 gallons produce around 25,000 bottles.

An advantage for Chinese Honey Citrus here

Last Thursday, the president said he was considering a new wave of tariffs. The idea is to continue punishing countries like China and their less expensive exports. Also, the move should supposedly spur the growth of us manufacturers. Those like Bill Riddling, a Melrose citrus grower, welcome this news.

Riddling doesn’t export his citruses, but their name may lead people to think otherwise. The specialty at Riddling Groves Melrose is Chinese Honey oranges, also known as Ponkans.

His son John Riddling, sitting next to his father and peeling this mushy citrus in three seconds, said they both foresee a positive effect from this tariff.

He said he vividly remembers his father in the late 80s drove his pickup truck down onto the side of State Road 21 to sell these unique and smallish citruses. “People started coming in. They said ‘What is this?’ They come from China. This is Melrose. They are sweet as honey,” Bill Riddling recalled. He proudly said the local people all know the Chinese Honey Citrus two years later.

Some unripe Chinese Honey Citruses of the Riddling Groves Melrose are spotted. The family grows more than 800 trees, including Royal Red grapefruit and pomelo. The season peaks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.

Riddling didn’t comment about the tariffs. But the acknowledgment of the devastations to his fellow citrus growers in South Florida led him to believe that a healthy international relationship is more than trade policies.

“Greening is quite new to us. Maybe, the other countries need to share with us how they combat the viruses. We should need to look worldwide,” Riddling said.

Future hope of technologies for farming

John Vansickle, a University of Florida College of Agriculture professor, said agriculture is a commodity that people can’t turn on and off like a switch.

It takes Bill Riddling 15 years to grow a citrus tree and two to three tons of fertilizers to provide the necessary chemicals. Aschliman’s 400 acres of fruits are also full of workers planting, picking, and processing before distributing the final products.

“It’s a gamble to say that it’s a short-term pain for a long-term gain, that China would give in without anything in return,” VanSickle continued, “It’s a political game.”

He said there are already conflicts among farmers before the president decides whether to renew the North American Free Trade Agreement later this month. Despite the rhetoric of a potential trade war, VanSickle knows one solution for certain. “To get out of that hole, you have to invest in farming technologies.”

UF College of Agriculture Professor John VanSickle studies and teaches international trade policies for 38 years. He is conducting extensions for the Institute of Agricultural Science.

About Quan McWil

Quan is a reporter at WUFT News who can be reached by emailing news@wuft.org or calling 352-392-6397.

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