Andy Nelson, Markets Editor
Andy Nelson, Markets Editor

When a series of freezes hit Chilean growing regions in September, North American importers of peaches, nectarines and plums braced for the worst.

As much as half of the stone fruit crops could be lost, Chilean officials said at the time. Losses for other fruits, like kiwifruit, were projected to be even higher.

The initial estimate was greeted with a healthy degree of skepticism among many of the importers I talked to. And sure enough, two months later, in December, the Chilean Fruit Exporters Association (ASOEX) announced that initial government loss estimates were on the high side — 13% to 16% was more likely, not the ministry of agriculture’s 22%.

Well, the season’s winding down now, and, as of mid-March, it appears that when it came to stone fruit, the initial bleak estimate turned out to be pretty accurate.

The latest numbers from the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association pegged nectarine losses at 53%, plums at 51% and peaches at 43%.

Those are the kind of numbers that could produce a nightmare of a marketing season, with prices up and down — the ups a lot higher than the downs are low — as the geographically diverse Chilean growing regions passed the baton and importers scrambled to find product and hold retailers’ attention.

That’s what could have happened. But according to the importers I talked to, for the most part it didn’t.

“Demand was steady all season, we found a pretty good balance and prices held relatively stable,” said Evan Myers, director of South American imports for Vancouver, British Columbia-based The Oppenheimer Group. “It seemed to be a pretty good season.”

On March 24, a box of size 40 peaches went for about $23 — higher than last year but by no means through the roof. And it was the same price as the week before that, and the two weeks before that.

In February, peaches were a bit higher — about $27. But again, they stayed at that level for the entire month. Skip back a month earlier, to early January, and you find the exact same price.

Craig Padover, stone fruit category manager for Yonkers, N.Y.-based Jac Vandenberg Inc., also was reasonably happy, given how things started, with the 2013-14 season.

In January, Padover told me that because of the big losses, Vandenberg and other importers would face the challenge of convincing retailers to include Chilean stone fruit in their order guides and merchandising plans.

At the time, Vandenberg was pulling out the stops to encourage its core customers to stay the course with existing programs.

It turns out it worked pretty well.

“Retailers reacted well to opportunities,” Padover said.

For Myers, the key to the unexpectedly smooth season was cooperation and good communication between the channels.

“Retailers and importers worked well together,” he said. “Retailers really got behind it.”

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