Blueberry shipments from Chile could begin arriving earlier than usual this season, enhancing opportunities for winter holiday promotions.

Wish Farms, Plant City, Fla., expects to receive blueberries from Chile in late November, said Teddy Koukoulis, director of blueberry operations.

After a trip to Chile in late August, Koukoulis is convinced the deal could get off to an earlier start this year.

“I saw a lot of flowers, a lot of buds,” he said. “Then, I would have said it could be 10 days early.”

Cooler weather in the first half of September, however, could put the brakes on that rapid growth, he said.

Predictions mixed

Wish Farms’ Chilean volumes likely will be up about 50% this year, Koukoulis said. For the industry as a whole, however, volumes likely will be only slightly above last season, he said.

Chilean blueberries shipped by Chicago-based Sun Belle Inc. were beginning to arrive in Asia in limited volumes the week of Oct. 8, said Janice Honigberg, the company’s president.

Production was running on time in Chile’s region IV in early October, said Honigberg, who expects a smooth transition from Argentinean to Chilean product in the U.S. this year.

“It should dovetail very well,” she said.

Chile’s central growing area should begin should begin producing in good volume by the end of November or beginning of December, Honigberg said.

“This volume is somewhat dispersed, since some of it comes in by air during the first half of December up until Christmas, and some comes in by boat in late December,” she said.

Chile’s southern growing area should have good volume at the end of January and early February, helping to ensure promotable U.S. volumes through February.

Weather-wise, the Chilean winter was milder than expected, Honigberg said. There were, however, enough cold hours for fruit to mature properly.

“Fruit set is excellent, and it looks like there will be very good size, generally speaking,” Honigberg said.

There likely won’t be enough fruit for big Christmas promotions, Honigberg said, but there should be enough to promote for New Year’s.

Sun Belle plans to increase production of new blueberry varieties in Chile this year, Honigberg said.

Larger volumes of stars, jewels and emeralds are expected in the northern growing areas, while the central and southern regions will see greater production of the legacy variety, she said.

Up to 10 days early

The Chilean blueberry harvest typically starts in early December, with the first significant arrivals in the U.S. and Canada just after Christmas, said Tom Tjerandsen, managing director for North America for the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association, Sonoma, Calif.

This season, however, optimal growing conditions in early harvest areas has growers believing harvest could be 10 days early, Tjerandsen said.

That said, it’s still early in the game to make too many predictions, Tjerandsen cautioned.

“There’s still a lot of time between now and then, and Mother Nature has been known to step in with considerable change resulting from those weather events,” he said.

In spite of the early start, Chilean importers think volumes will peak on time, in late January and early February, Tjerandsen said.

Nolan Quinn, berry category director for The Oppenheimer Group, Vancouver, British Columbia, said industrywide numbers should be similar to last season.

Oppenheimer, however, expects to increase its Chilean imports through a combination of adding new growers and sourcing more berries from existing growers, Quinn said.

In mid-September, the Northern Chile deal was running a week or two ahead of schedule, Quinn said. The growing season in the north has been very dry, with 40% less precipitation than normal.

As a result, volumes will be down, though quality should be unaffected, Quinn said. Some product should begin arriving in the U.S. from northern Chile by air in mid-November. Container shipments should follow in late November or early December, he said.

In central Chile, meanwhile, new plantings are starting to mature, making it likely that volumes will be up from the region for Oppenheimer, Quinn said.

And in the late season, southern Chilean deal,volumes also are expected to be up, he said.

In addition to an increase in its overall Chilean blueberry program in 2012-13, Oppenheimer expects a boost in organic offerings, Quinn said.

“We’re getting into it — we haven’t done much in Chile,” he said. “We think the demand’s there. The major retailers are carrying both (conventional and organic).”

Andres Armstrong, general manager of the Chilean Blueberry Committee, Santiago, said Mother Nature has been kind to growers this year, promising high-quality fruit.

“(There have been) only light rains and no frost at all,” he said. “We anticipate high quality and healthy product this season.”

Brian Bocock, vice president of product management in the Grand Junction, Mich., office of Naples, Fla.-based Naturipe Farms LLC, said he expected Chilean shipments to begin arriving in mid-October, with volume shipments slated for the first week of December.

“We’re running a week to ten days early,” Bocock said. “We should be rolling really good by the last week of December.”

New acreage, higher volumes

Volume should be up industrywide in 2012-13, thanks to new acreage, maturing bushes that are now producing more fruit and favorable growing conditions, Bocock said.

“They haven’t had any significant weather events,” he said. “We expect a good, solid crop.”

Volumes for all importers could be up 15% this season, but Naturipe expects an even bigger jump.

“We grow a lot faster than the industry,” Bocock said.

California Giant Inc., Watsonville, Calif., likely won’t begin receiving Chilean blueberries until early November, said Cindy Jewell, the company’s marketing director.

Early reports from Chile indicated good quality and ample supplies for the 2012-13 export season, Jewell said.

“They’re all optimistic that the fruit is there, the plants are healthy,” she said.

California Giant expects to ship more Chilean blueberries this year than last, Jewell said.

Los Angeles-based The Giumarra Cos. doesn’t expect significant volumes until about the first week of December, said Tom Richardson, general manager in the company’s Wenatchee, Wash., office.

“All the main growing areas are just coming out of winter,” Richardson said Sept. 27. “We’re just getting started in Argentina. The earliest the main (Chilean) areas will begin is mid- to late October.”

Giumarra expects its Chilean supplies to rise this season.