The dog days of summer arrived a bit early for shippers of California grapes and tree fruit, but strong quality and big volume leave the door open for ample promotion opportunities through August and September.
Another month-plus of solid supplies of stone fruit and red and green seedless grapes for the next couple of months and beyond should open the door for good retail promotions in the weeks ahead, marketers said.
The summer doldrums seemed to hit early this year, marketers said.
“It felt like August the last two weeks of July,” said Greg Lindsey, sales manager with CAL Produce Sales, Fresno, Calif.
There has been good supply and good quality of stone fruit and grapes, but higher truck rates have added to costs for East Coast buyers compared with a year ago and supply has exceeded demand in recent weeks, some marketers said.
California grape and stone fruit volume was “hitting all cylinders” but the demand side left something to be desired, Lindsey said.
“We’re all wondering why there’s a lack of interest across the board, not just (stone) fruit and grapes, but cantaloupes,” he said.
Marketers said there is an opportunity for a rebound, however, with back-to-school demand expected to help move the needle in coming weeks. Supplies of Northwest cherries, a competing fruit, will fade seasonally.
“The good thing is it’s been a great quality year on the seedless grapes and stone fruit,” said Clint Lucas, account manager with RJO Produce, Fresno. “Even with this heat we’ve experienced in the last 20 to 30 days, we feel like the fruits held up well which has been a positive.”
Prices for California fruit were off somewhat from year-ago levels.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that shipping point prices for flame seedless grapes in the San Joaquin Valley on August 7 were $15.95-$18.95 per carton for large and extra-large grapes, compared to $18.95-$20.95 the same day a year ago.
The USDA said organic flame seedless grapes were $24.95-$26.95 on August 7, similar to year-ago levels.
For cantaloupes, the USDA reported Aug. 7 prices of $3-5 per carton, compared with $5.45-$6.95 per carton the same time a year ago. Organic cantaloupe were quoted at $6.95-$7.95 per carton for size 9s from the San Joaquin Valley, down from $10.95-$12.95 per carton a year ago.
California yellow peaches in 25-pound cartons were trading at $14.95-$16.95 for size 60-64 fruit, compared $21.95-$24.95 per carton the same time a year ago.
A strong cherry crop in the Northwest may have taken some of the early promotion opportunities from California grapes, Lucas said.
The USDA reported truck shipments of Washington cherries this season, through Aug. 4, were running 12% ahead of a year ago. A short crop in California had retailers wanting to make volume and sales up with Northwest cherries.
“I think all the retailers were waiting to promote cherries and they did it,” Lucas said.
Retail cherry promotions in the second half of June and all of July took away some early ad specials on early flame seedless grapes, he said.
“(Retailers) were running cherry ads because it was good volume good quality and good pricing so I think that did affect movement on the front end of the grape deal,” he said.
The tide had turned by early August.
The USDA reported that the number of supermarkets promoting California grapes were below year-ago levels during the weeks of July 13, July 20 and July 27. However, for the week of Aug. 3, the USDA said the number of stores promoting California grapes was 20% above year-ago levels. The USDA said grape ads accounted for 19% of all fruit promotions, the biggest percentage of any fruit that week.
Truck availability has seemed to ease a bit but rates remain well above year-ago levels, Lucas said.
Electronic logging device rules, new this year, are making it tougher for the industry, said Mike Asdoorian, sales representative with DLJ Produce Inc., Fresno.
Before the ELD rule, truckers could make a run from central California to Phoenix in a day, said. Now, those same trucks are taking two to three days to get back to California to reload because electronic logbooks cutting down the amount of driving hours and affecting turnaround times.
“It has been definitely been challenging this season,” Lucas said.
With some commodities like cantaloupe, the freight costs to the East Coast can be more than the value of the fruit on the truck.
Allocating $4 to $5 per carton for freight to get fruit to the East Coast adds to costs, he said.
The USDA reported that July 31 spot truck rates to Philadelphia from the San Joaquin Valley were $8,600-$9,000, about 30% higher than with $6,500-$6,900 year-ago rates.
Early August fires in northern California are having no effect on Central Valley grapes and tree fruit.
“I think (August and September) are going to be two really good months to promote red and green seedless as well as stone fruit,” Lucas said. Some late peach varieties even go into October, he said. “For yellow peaches and red and green grapes, come and get it.”