For 25 years, Sutherland, S.A. has been shipping produce to Southeast Asia from many different origins around the globe. However, in today’s environment shipping times and shipping cost have become unpredictable. “The shipping challenges really got us thinking,” says Ricky Chong, CEO of Sutherland, S.A. “We started conversations in the fall of last year and together with a business partner in China, we opened up a Beijing office.”
Out of Beijing, the company is working with Chinese growers and packers to provide Southeast Asian consumers with the highest quality produce possible. “From China, Bangkok is within 20 hours reach and it takes two days to make it to Cambodia. From California on the other hand, it takes 30 days for container shipments to make it to Southeast Asia. Shorter transit times make a big difference and greatly reduce our risk,” mentioned Chong.
Inhouse quality control
“Although China is a huge producer of many produce items, the majority of their growing and packing standards are third world. As a result, the quality of the products often doesn’t meet the expectations of high-end consumers in Southeast Asia.” Chong is aware that making changes takes time, but he is very optimistic about China’s potential. “We are working with the best growers in the country and teach them how to prune, cool, and pack their produce. In addition, we have hired our own QC inspectors who are in training now.” They have spent the last eight months in the fields and are inspecting according to Sutherland’s standards.
Last year, Murcott tangerines were the first commodity handled out of the Beijing office. Right now, grapes are being shipped out of China, but Sutherland is also venturing into other commodities it didn’t traditionally work with. An example are Saturn peaches that are being harvested as of this week. Other commodities starting up now are pomegranates as well as apples and pears. Exotic fruit varieties -considered staple items in China- will also be marketed by Sutherland. “We know which regions of China grow the best and most famous varieties, allowing us to offer the best quality.”
Export business to continue as usual
Does this mean Sutherland will no longer ship commodities like cherries, grapes, and citrus from other origins to Southeast Asia? “I don’t foresee any changes as produce from China will complement our existing programs,” Chong said. For any commodity, China varieties are completely different. “When taking California grapes as an example, there is such a huge demand for California grapes, especially the IFG varieties. Therefore, we actually expect to ship larger volumes of grapes out of California this year.” The China varieties like Shine Muscat, Kyoho, Red Crimson, and Summer Royal are completely different from California varieties and serve to complement California grape programs.
The China office is located in the Beijing wholesale market. “Being in this location, we get to see the best quality fruit and innovations in packaging, which really helps providing a better quality product.”