Asian Flu Makes Apple Growers Ill

Apple growing always has its ups and downs, but never has third generation grower Bruce Grim seen a year like this. The weather has been glorious, the crop one of his best, CBS News Correspondent Bill Whitaker reports.

"It is a good crop, no question about it," Grim said as he strolled through an orchard filled with ripe red apples.

But many of these beauties will be left to rot in the orchard, because some of his best customer just aren't buying any more.

"We're seeing about a 10- to 11-million box drop in that market just in the last year, because of the so-called Asian flu," Grim said.

The Asian economic downturn has laid low one of Washington state's major exports - apples. It's a market growers meticulously cultivated, but which now is withering.

Steve Lutz, president of the Washington Apple Commission, says exports are down 60 percent in Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, and down 70-80 percent in Indonesia.

"That translates into $90-$100 million in sales that have been lost, of dollars that won't be coming back into the communities and the pockets of our growers," Lutz said.

Over at the Port of Seattle, business is bustling. Ship after ship steams in stacked high with record levels of goods from Asia: electronics, apparel, toys, as Asian economies try to export their way back to health.

But the flip-side is that ailing Asia can't afford to buy many American products, so that tens of thousands of the cargo containers that arrive here stuffed are returning to Asia empty.

And it's not just apples piling up. A bumper wheat crop, more than the silos can hold, sits unsold in golden mounds. Normally, 90 percent is shipped to Asia.

Not even Boeing, the state's biggest employer and exporter, is above it all. The aircraft maker has been forced to store planes in the Arizona desert - planes that Asian countries ordered but now can't afford.

"We're sending a warning signal to the rest of the country," said Patricia Davis, Commissioner of the Port of Seattle.

Davis said the still-prosperous Northwest, the most trade dependent region in the U.S., is like the canary in the mine; first to sense trouble in the air.

"We're worried in Washington and sleepless in Seattle for a reason, because we're feeling the effects of the Asian downturn," Davis said. "The rest of the country will be feeling it very soon."

For apple growers, crunch time is now. They're launching an ad campaign to boost America's apple appetite. Bruce Grim is hopeful.

"You're either an optimist or you're on Prozac. I do expect the Asian markets to be back," he said.

But when? If Asia's ills aren't cured soon, the first Americans to succumb are likely to e in Washington state.

©1998 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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