Suppliers push huge Chilean blueberry crop

10/16/2009 09:55:00 AM
Abraham Mahshie

Chilean blueberry suppliers are projecting at least 30% more volume this year, but it will be absorbed into the marketplace only if high quality is maintained and pack sizes increase to a pint standard.

“I believe the big issue coming … as an industry is our ability to promote more and more pounds of blueberries that are being produced out of Chile,” said Mario Flores, blueberry product manager for Naturipe Farms LLC, Naples, Fla.

Courtesy Naturipe Farms LLC

Increased plantings and maturity of bushes have suppliers expecting a Chilean blueberry crop that could reach 123 million pounds, says Mario Flores, blueberry product manager for Naturipe Farms LLC, Naples, Fla.

Flores said the industry produced 91 million pounds of blueberries last year and 66 million pounds the year before.

“This year coming up it could be upwards of 123 million pounds of fresh blueberries,” he said, citing increased plantings and maturity of bushes that can double in production after their second year.

Janice Honigberg, president of Sun Belle Inc., Washington, D.C., said the vast majority — 84% — of total Chilean production was exported to the U.S. last year, and a similar percentage is expected this year, primarily from established fields.

“We are increasing our production particularly at the beginning and end of the season to have a consistent production curve,” she said.

Dave Bowe, owner of Dave’s Specialty Imports Inc., Coral Springs, Fla., agreed Chile is adding more weight to the trading relationship with the U.S. as winter blueberry competition grows worldwide.

“They are giving a lot of information to the United States and they are looking at the United States now more than they had in the past,” he said. “Other countries now are starting to grow and produce their own blueberries.”

Smooth transition

Increases in production in the growing area north of Santiago in particular, combined with air freighting at the start of the season, will help to line up the end of the Argentina deal with the start of Chile.

“Argentina will still be in its peak volume to the marketplace in November, and in the first part of December will fall off quite rapidly like they have been in the past,” Flores said.
“At this point, the trend is falling in a similar pattern with Chilean volume expected to hit in late December.”

Bruce Turner, head of operations for Giumarra VBM International Berry LLC, Wenatchee, Wash., said hot and rainy conditions during harvest accounted for damage to berries that hurt retailer and consumer perception.

“We expect to have a little bit better condition coming in,” he said, adding that the weather is more consistent this year.

Bobby Stokes, berry sales manager at Curry & Co. LLC, Brooks, Ore., agreed everything seems to be on time with good weather this year, which should indicate that shipments will begin arriving by late November.

“They are trying to move less packages and more weight,” Stokes said of this year’s objectives, describing an industry consensus to start the deal with pints.

Stokes warned that timing of the shipments and smooth logistics will be necessary this year to avoid flooding the market with lower quality fruit that resulted in depressed pricing last year.

“They’re quality control is better and their product is better,” he said. “The people we’re talking to are increasing their acreage, increasing their volume and the volume is going to be excellent for us. They are extremely excited about the start of the season.”

Joe Barsi, director of business development at California Giant Inc., Watsonville, explained that because Chile has been handling blueberries longer than Argentina, it is a preferred deal with more predictability.

Less predictable weather in Argentina is also a reason why suppliers prefer Chile.

“The efficiency of logistics, packaging, quality — they are more experienced. Those markets are more mature,” he said of Chile. “People look forward to that.”

Barsi said the industry agreement on pints “will play a huge role in the movement of the pack.”

Barsi also said that in the North American market, 60% more crop was able to move this year thanks to bigger packs and proper retail, indicating that the high winter volumes should also move well.

“Like you see in any blueberry shipping point … as the industry matures and you get more volume, the trend is towards a larger package to move the crop so that the retailers can price it properly,” said Phil Neary, director of operations and grower relations at Sunny Valley International Inc., Glassboro, N.J.

Neary said Sunny Valley is expecting 40% more volume out of Chile, and the company will probably bring in 750,000 boxes, a 20% to 30% increase over last year.

Flores pointed out that movement from a 6-ounce to a pint is more than doubling the purchase amount for consumers, which does a lot to perceived value if the price is right.

“It’s a matter of upsizing the pack to the consumer and giving the consumer a good value proposition and moving more fruits in the marketplace,” he said.



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