While growers in Mexico produce many of the popular table grapes varieties that growers in California’s Coachella Valley offer, they, like their California counterparts, are cutting back on the green, seedless perlettes.
“The perlette market is really going down,” said Bill Sykes, president of The Sykes Co., Nogales, Ariz.
The perlette is “an early market phenomenon” that is very expensive to pack because of the hand labor it requires, he said.
“With Chile shipping so late into our season, (growing perlettes) just doesn’t make sense anymore,” Sykes said.
Growers in the California growing regions of Coachella, Bakersfield and Fresno also are reducing their perlette acreage, he said.
Sykes will continue to ship some perlettes this season, but sugraones and flames will account for the vast majority of his volume, he said.
Sykes also is looking at some new, later varieties that show promise, he added.
Although many growers are cutting back on perlettes, a large number of perlettes remain in Mexico, said Dirk Winkelmann, international business development director for Pacific Trellis Fruit, Reedley, Calif.
Perlettes require a lot of work, he said, “Unfortunately, it’s still the earliest white variety, and there hasn’t been anything to replace it yet.”
Growers have been removing less-productive blocks of perlettes because they are labor intensive, have a higher average cost to produce and “some mediocre return years compared to the cost level,” Winkelmann said.
Flames, sugraones and red globes are other varieties the company produces, and Pacific Trellis also has made increased plantings of black varieties in the past couple of years as well as some proprietary grapes, summer royals, and unknown variety black seedless grapes.
A few growers in Mexico have been planting some new red varieties, he added.
Hermosillo-based Grupo Alta, part owner of Divine Flavor LLC, Rio Rico, Ariz., is experimenting with some early green seedless grapes as well as other later varieties, said Carlos Bon, Grupo Alta’s sales manager for Europe and Asia.
“We’ve been investing a lot in (research and development),” he said. “We’re testing a lot of varieties right now.”
He is hopeful that the company will be ready to launch a new, early-season variety by 2013 that is sweeter than the perlette and has a longer shelf.
MAS Melons & Grapes, Rio Rico, offers “consistent volume” of perlettes, along with flames, sugraones, red globes and a few other varieties, said owner Miguel Suarez.
Perlettes need to be thinned by hand, Suarez pointed out.
“You can start with a bunch with 1,000 berries and trim it down to 100 berries,” he said. “It’s costly, risky and time consuming.”
Growers must take in more money for them compared to other varieties if they are going to cover the added expense, he said.
Flames, on the other hand, are thinned using a chemical, and sugraones thin out themselves, he said.
“We decreased our (perlette) program about three years ago,” said Steve Yubeta, vice president of sales for Farmer’s Best International LLC, Rio Rico.
The company has kept its perlette volume consistent following the cutback, which Yubeta said “was not huge.”
Perlettes remain a good product for Farmer’s Best, he said, adding, “It depends on the season” and on how much volume Chile leaves in the market.
“Sometimes (perlettes) can be a valuable item. Some years it doesn’t seem to make a difference,” Yubeta said. “Either way, it’s costing us more money to get those boxes up here — it’s an expensive variety to grow.”
Before Chile started sending grapes to the U.S., growers could get $30-40 for a box of perlettes, Sykes said. “It was well worth the extra expense.”
Last year, in late May, 18-pound boxes of large perlettes from Mexico were fetching only around $14, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Sykes ships only 10% of the volume of perlettes today that he shipped five years ago.
“There just isn’t any point in it any more,” he said.