Reining in a diverse industry under one set of quality standards is a major goal of the new Chilean Kiwifruit Committee, which was formed with the assistance and support of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Chilean Exporters Association (ASOEX) and the Chilean Fruit Growers Federation (Fedefruta).
Ronald Bown, chairman of ASOEX, cited a need for cohesion in Chile’s kiwifruit industry is longstanding and the foundation of the group.
“The Chileans have made a substantial commitment to kiwifruit,” said Tom Tjerandsen, managing director for North America for the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association, Sonoma, Calif.
Tjerandsen said more than 80% of Chilean exporters are members of the new committee.
“The reason for forming this is that they recognize to be successful and grow the kiwi market in North America, they have to have a very competitive product so that working internally to establishing rigorous standards to ensure only thee best product arrives at our shores,” Tjerandsen said.
Chile is just completing its first season with the committee in place, and overall, everything went smoothly, Tjerandsen said.
“It worked fine,” he said. “You always wonder if the standards that have been established are going to be recognized and adhered to and that has been the case. That was encouraging. All these standards and requirements that exceed the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) regulations are voluntary. That is something that they needed to carefully monitor.”
Much of the committee’s mission is centered on the maturity of the fruit before it is harvested, Tjerandsen said.
“The spotlight has been focused particularly on early season fruit, which has been the most problematic,” he said. “The growers everywhere take a look at prices and window of opportunity and take advantage of those prices. The Chilean growers waited this year to ensure sufficient quality to enhance the reputation for Chile’s fruit to export.”
The most daunting hurdle in any such concept is attaining universal participation, Tjerandsen said.
“I think really the principal challenge was confirming discipline among growers to adhere to these rigorous standards,” he said.
But, the industry responded, he said.
“It turned out not to be the problem they had feared,” he said.
Tjerandsen added some U.S. retailers were a bit apprehensive, but those fears were quickly quelled.
“It’s the same challenge that navel oranges from Chile had faced — some retailers sat back waiting to see if Chile could reach a balance between acid and brix and particularly in light of a very robust market for navels because of California ending early.“There were retailers who sat back and missed out on substantial early profits because the growers did have the discipline and the oranges coming north that were fully competitive with the California fruit,” Tjerandsen said. “Retailers remembered that and so we’re going to see that, particularly in the early season, coming north the fruit will meet or exceed retailer expectations.”
Testing for maturity — as opposed to ripeness — before harvesting is not limited to Chile. It’s a concept that is gaining traction among U.S. growers and shippers, as well.
“We’re hoping by the time it gets to the retail level, the fruit is ready to ripen,” said John Fagundes, partner with Hanford, Calif.-based Cal Harvest Marketing Inc.
“As soon as it breaks cold storage, it should ripen successfully. We use a more advanced maturity testing. We’re using the dry weight testing procedure, which is far superior than the refract meter, which is only a judge of ripeness. We’re using dry weight, which is a judge of maturity of the fruit.”
A piece of fruit that is harvested before it is fully mature won’t fully ripen, Fagundes noted.
“It’s really important, especially in early pickings, to make sure the fruit is mature enough to have full ripening potential, so the consumer has a full appreciation of kiwifruit,” he said. “A lot of early fruit is not mature enough. You have to do the secondary tests to make sure it’s mature enough.”
Testing for maturity takes a bit longer, but it is worth the wait, Fagundes added.
“This test takes about 24 hours, but it doesn’t cost much more,” he said.
There’s always a temptation to save time and get fruit to market quickly, especially if there’s a season-to-season market gap, said Michael Ohki, owner of Winton, Calif.-based Ohki Farms.
“People try to go into the market early; they see a window where the prices are higher and end up selling green fruit that didn’t ripen properly,” he said. “That turns off consumers. Everyone is chasing that dollar and don’t care about their neighbor.”
Chile’s new committee is taking aim at that concern, said Kurt Cappelluti, sales manager with Fresno, Calif.-based Stellar Distributing.
“Some guys out of Chile take on the same standard as California,” he said. “They’re different growing regions, but they’re trying to make a statement of top quality and the most edible piece of fruit they can get out there.”