Fuel costs, availability prove challenging with Chilean grapesHigh fuel prices and availability are among the transportation challenges facing shippers and importers of Chilean grapes this year.

When it comes to finding transportation for Chilean grapes bound for the U.S., it"s pretty much status quo, which isn"t necessarily a good thing, said Tom Tjerandsen, managing director for North America with the Sonoma, Calif.-based Chilean Fresh Fruit Association.

"Nothing"s changed much. It"s a constant challenge to get enough sea capacity, especially when it"s moving in different directions," he said.

By "different directions," Tjerandsen means destinations, other than the U.S., for Chilean grapes. A combination of a weak dollar and increased demand from Asia, Eastern Europe and other markets has led to more exports to non-U.S. markets.

"It"s more difficult to fill ships" when export-market fruit is taking off from Chile in more and more directions, he said.

One curious trend in the transportation of Chilean grapes is shippers" preference for the East Coast, Tjerandsen said.

Of the 416,000 tons of grapes shipped to the U.S. last season, 320,000 tons of them went to the East Coast, he said. Tjerandsen isn"t sure why, but he expects a repeat.

"I think it will probably be similar this year."

Shipments of Chilean grapes to the East and West coasts used to be much more balanced, Tjerandsen said.

Costly fuel rates could wind up playing a role in where some shippers send product this season, said Francisco Chacon, marketing director for Santiago-based Dole Chile SA.

"Freights are more expensive this year," he said.

"If you add that, plus euro exchange (rates), shipments to Europe could be affected."

East Coast shipments will always be heavier because of simple demographics, said Mark Greenberg, senior vice president of procurement and chief operating officer of Fisher Capespan, St. Laurent, Quebec: More Americans live east of the Mississippi than west of it.

That fact will likely be accentuated this season by the fact that California still had so much product in storage to ship in December, Greenberg said.

"It would be like bringing coals to Newcastle this year," he said.

Shipping rates from Chile are up this year, largely because of higher energy prices, but they shouldn"t have too much of an effect on Chilean shipments to the U.S., Greenberg said.