Importers wait to gauge effects of freezes

10/28/2013 12:03:00 PM
Andy Nelson

The effects of several September freezes remain to be seen, Chilean blueberry importers and officials say.

When it comes to the September freezes, Brian Bocock, vice president of product management for Naturipe Farms LLC, Naples, Fla., said he tries to see the glass as half full.

“We were affected, but we’ll still be producing, which is a good thing,” he said. “Some other fruits were completely decimated.”

Because of the freezes, instead of its typical annual increase in year-to-year production, the 2013-14 Chilean blueberry season likely will see flat growth or slight increases, Bocock said.

The effects won’t be felt right away.

“The big effects will be in December and January,” he said.

As the season progresses, however, the deal should get closer to normal, Bocock said. Freeze damage to fields in southern Chile wasn’t as bad as damage in the central and northern regions.

“In February and March, there should be some pretty good numbers.”

As of mid-October, it was too soon to tell what effect the freezes could have on the size of blueberries harvested, Bocock said.

If berries abort and fall off of trees, the berries that remain on those trees wind up on the big side — the trees’ energy will be channeled into less fruit, Bocock said.

But there’s no way of knowing exactly how much fruit could abort, he said.

Quality also could be affected by the freezes, but Bocock said he isn’t overly worried.

“There could be more scars on some fruit, but I think the quality overall will be very good.”

Blueberries may not be among the fruit crops hurt worst by the September freezes, but they were still hurt, said Frank Ramos, president of Miami-based customs brokerage The Perishable Specialist.

“Other commodities were severely affected, but blueberries were also affected,” Ramos said.

Some Chilean fruit was already shipping as early as the week of Oct. 7, Ramos said. How much comes into the U.S., and when, remains to be seen.

“Everybody’s being cautious in their projections,” he said. “People are taking a wait-and-see attitude. Everyone’s optimistic, but they are expecting some setbacks.”

The difficulty in figuring out exactly how much this season’s Chilean blueberry crop will be affected by the freezes has to do with timing and the geographical diversity of Chile’s many growing regions, said Mike Bowe, vice president of Dave’s Specialty Imports Inc., Coral Springs, Fla.

“It’s spotty,” Bowe said. “The problem is we don’t have all the reports in yet. Regions 6 and 7 seem to have gotten hit hard.”

It’s not that simple, though, he said.

Even within regions, there are considerable variations in damage.

“I talked to one guy who had some effects, but his neighbors were in pretty good shape.”

Looking at the industry as a whole though, Bowe said, the bottom line is that blueberries fared pretty well overall.

“Other crops got hit much harder.”

In mid-October it was still early to tell definitively the toll the freezes took on Chilean blueberry crops, said Nolan Quinn, berry category director for Vancouver, British Columbia-based The Oppenheimer Group.

But first appearances suggested blueberries fared better than other crops, said Quinn, who estimated Oppenheimer’s early season losses at up to 20%.

“It’s still being worked out, but the early blues were affected by the cold, some more than others,” he said.

After the early deal, Oppenheimer and others will have to reassess, Quinn said. Many later plants hadn’t even begun to flower when the freezes hit.

“We’re very much in wait-and-see mode,” he said. “There could potentially be more, as the plants grow.”

The freezes have slowed arrivals of Argentinian blueberries into North American markets this fall, and that’s likely an indicator of what importers can expect from Chile, said Cindy Jewell, marketing director for Watsonville, Calif.-based California Giant Berry Farms

“There’s a delay in Argentina, and Chile is usually behind Argentina,” Jewell said. “We haven’t really changed the forecast, though, because we haven’t had any solid information.”



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