ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ronald Bown has attended the Produce Marketing Association’s annual Fresh Summit expo every year since 1987.
“It is always the same, the same people, the same environment,” Bown said on the expo floor, and the exporters of Chile always seem to draw a crowd, whether at their sprawling booth or at a lavishly staged reception.
For Bown, president of the Santiago-based Chilean Fruit Exporters Association (ASOEX), the 25-year plus span has been witness to Chile’s ascension as a leading Southern Hemisphere exporter of fruit to the U.S. From the 1989 cyanide grape scare to later fights with California growers over marketing order regulations, exports of Chilean grapes to the U.S. surged from about 250,000 metric tons in 1989 to a peak of nearly 460,000 metric tons by 2009.
Other commodities have also experienced big growth. Chile’s exports of blueberries to the U.S. market soared from about 35,000 metric tons in 2008-09 to more than 66,517 metric tons in 2012-14, and exports of oranges to the U.S. in that same span rose from 15,000 metric tons to more than 52,000 metric tons.
Chile has seen more competition from South American neighbors in recent years, with Peru in particular showing volume growth in grapes and grabbing some winter season market share. At the same time, Bown said Chile is looking to expand its presence in Asian markets while maintaining export volumes to the U.S.
Bown said a key mission for the Chilean presence at the PMA show is to review the previous season and provide insight into the coming winter fruit deal.
Chile’s fruit growers and exporters last year were stung by a severe frost in September that limited stone fruit and grapes, and port strikes early this year added delays and uncertainty about the consistency of Chile’s fruit supply.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Chile’s grape exports to the U.S. from October 2013 through August 2014 totaled 317,00 metric tons, down 19% from the previous season. Plum exports dropped from 31,802 metric tons in 2012-13 to about 14,000 metric tons in 2013-14, and nectarine volumes also dropped by more than half, from 22,414 metric tons in 2012-13 to 10,813 metric tons in 2013-14.
Chile’s share of total U.S. grape imports was 63% in the 2013-14 season, down from 76% in 2009-10. At the same time, Peru’s share of the U.S. import grape market has risen from less than 2% in 2009-10 to about 8% in 2013-14.
Bown said U.S. retailers and consumers can expect a bounce-back year for Chilean fruit after what he called a “50-year freeze” event last year.
“Consequences of the freeze are very difficult to project,” Bown said.
Typically, fruit output after a major freeze may bounce back by perhaps 12%, with additional volume from the incremental increase in production expected from maturing orchards.
“So then you would expect a 15% to 17% increase (after a freeze), but Mother Nature being like a woman, you never know what is going to happen,” Bown said.
Chile also received a shot of cold weather in recent weeks, but Bown said he expects that brief freeze will have very little effect on Chile’s fruit output for the upcoming season — perhaps dinging production 1% or 2%, if that much.
Given better weather for fruit orchards, Bown also predicted calmer waters for labor at key Chilean ports. Bown said it is important for U.S. buyers to know that Chile’s fruit exports will be dependable.
“What you are losing is image, you are losing expectations of people asking ‘What is going to happen with Chile? Can we trust Chile?’” he said. “We are working hard with the government to avoid issues related to strikes at the ports.”
Bown estimated Chilean exporters lost close to 40 million boxes and $500 million in sales because of the freeze and port strikes last year.
Chile’s fortunes will be improved in 2014-15, Bown said. And increasing competition from Peru and other countries doesn’t bother Chilean exporters, he said.
“I say always that we love competition because that gives us more reasons to improve,” he said.
Chile’s expanded presence in the U.S. market over the past three decades has helped to expand grape consumption, he said.
“You see consumption increases, the average price didn’t decrease and more people are satisfied,” he said.