Navels, clementines — and now grapefruit.
Last winter the U.S. Department of Agriculture ruled that certain South African districts where citrus is grown are pest-free, opening the door to grapefruit shipments from those areas into the U.S.
On Feb. 9, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service declared 16 districts in three South African provinces free of pests that cause citrus black spot.
The Citrusdal, South Africa-based Western Cape Citrus Producers Forum, expects growers to export grapefruit to the U.S., albeit in a limited way at first, said Joretha Geldenhuys, chief executive officer.
“The forum will definitely be shipping grapefruit to the U.S. this year,” Geldenhuys said. “We expect it to find the same favor with the American consumers as does the other South African citrus. We will start conservatively this year, with a view to growing our presence in coming years.”
Montreal-based Fisher Capespan Inc. is expected to begin bringing its first crop of star ruby grapefruit at the end of May, said Marc Solomon, president and chief executive officer. Solomon described the star ruby as having very red flesh and a beautiful blush with lots of red in it.
This first year will be more akin to sticking a toe in the water than diving in, he said.
“We’ll start fairly small, much less than the market can take,” Solomon said. “We’ll definitely be conservative. We want to build the market.”
Fisher Capespan hopes to take advantage of a window after the Florida grapefruit deal winds down in May, Solomon said.
California is shipping grapefruit at the same time, but because freight is so high from the West to the East Coast, Solomon thinks South Africa will have an advantage in the East.
The South African grapefruit deal should last about eight weeks, with supplies winding down in July, Solomon said.
Vero Beach, Fla.-based Seald Sweet International won’t bring in any South African grapefruit this year, but that doesn’t mean it won’t in the future, said David Mixon, senior vice president and chief marketing officer.
“It’s a limited crop this year, but it will grow, and we will be involved,” Mixon said. “South Africa produces a good grapefruit.”
One question mark hovering over the deal is how well grapefruit will stand up to cold treatment, Mixon.
“This year we’ll really look to see if it handles cold treatment,” he said.
Fort Pierce, Fla.-based DNE World Fruit Sales will give South African grapefruit a whirl, but how big of a one remains to be seen, said Tom Cowan, South African citrus category manager.
“We’ll definitely try it, but how successful it’s going to be, I don’t know,” he said. “Growers say it’s a pretty good eating piece of fruit, but I’m not so sure it’s going to work well.”
The main problem with the South African grapefruit deal is logistics, Cowan said. Unlike clementines and navels, grapefruit grow far from the port in Capetown — about eight hours away by truck, he said.
When you tack on that transportation cost to the price of shipping fruit across the ocean, it could be hard for South Africa to compete with California grapefruit on price, Cowan said.
“Unless you can get $20-plus for them (U.S. f.o.b.), it’s going to a hard go-round,” he said.
One advantage South African fruit could have is that a lot of it is grown organically, Cowan said. That could help it attract a premium price that would mitigate some of those higher logistical costs, he said.