(Sept. 3) SAN DIEGO — Chilean avocados are arriving in the U.S. earlier and in larger volumes than ever, U.S. importers say.

The first major-volume shipments of Chilean avocados arrived Aug. 20 in San Diego, three weeks earlier than in 2001, which will expand a period of fall overlap between the California and Chilean seasons.

“We can now count on these Chilean shipments starting regularly in August because many new groves have been planted in the northern growing areas,” said Phil Henry, vice president of Escondido, Calif.-based Henry Avocado Corp. “They have earlier maturity than the older plantings in the central and southern areas.”

Agricom, Chile’s largest avocado packer, shipper and exporter, has been Henry’s supplier since the latter began importing in 1990. The fruit, which is packed, palletized and refrigerated to await shipment by Agricom from the Chilean port of Valparaiso, carries the Agricom label with a Price Look-Up sticker.

The early arrival of the Chilean avocados does not affect the size or duration of availability, Henry said, adding that peak sizes of 48s and 60s, similar to this year’s California crop, will prevail throughout the season, which runs through January.

“Our biggest message to buyers is that they can count on a steady flow of avocados, assuring freshness and an ample supply with promotable pricing,” Henry said.

Henry said Chile likely would ship a record 5.8 million cartons — 145 million pounds — to U.S. receivers this season.

Last year’s 5.2 million cartons — 130 million pounds — is the standard.

“They had quite a bit of rain in Chile this year, so they have very abundant water, so we project the quality to be terrific,” Henry said.

The abundance of product will put a strain on prices, said Bob Lucy, president of Del Ray Avocado Co. Inc., Fallbrook, Calif.

“We probably have a little too much early volume,” Lucy said. “But there are tremendous competitive pressures down there.”

The influx of Chilean product already has been a weight on prices.

“Prices were around $30 (per carton) two weeks ago, and now they’re down to $22,” Lucy said Aug. 27. “You still have California fruit in the system, and you come in with 8 million or 9 million pounds of Chilean, and everybody is going to be stuffed.”

But retailers and foodservice operators will have more options, he added.

“We’ll be competitive,” he said. “It will be a good deal for the consumer. And if we can keep it at least at $20 for Chilean avocados now, that’s a fair return.”