Mother Nature has put a significant dent in the winter Chilean cherry crop.

In the 2011-12 season, Chilean growers exported about 15 million boxes of cherries, about 2.7 million of which wound up in North American markets, said Craig Padover, stone fruit category manager for Yonkers, N.Y.-based Jac Vandenberg Inc.

That total number will be closer to 9 million boxes this season, he said.

The 9 million estimate was confirmed in a Dec. 19 e-mail from Edmundo Araya, secretary general of the Chilean Fresh Fruit Exporters Association (ASOEX). Araya said picking in southern regions of Chile stopped Dec. 15-16 because of rains and had not resumed as of Dec. 19.

Also on Dec. 19, Cristian Tagle, a Chilean grower, said in an e-mail that “it seems the season is over” because of excessive rains.

As of Dec. 15, about 4.6 million pounds of Chilean cherries had been shipped to the U.S., down from 10.6 million pounds last year at the same time.

“In the long-term picture, there will be a lot more cherries grown in Chile, but this is one of those years where there’s a lot of demand and not enough supply,” he said. “We’re all kind of cautious right now.”

The 2012-13 estimate has been lowered several times throughout the season, said Broc Bengard, vice president of Los Angeles-based Bengard Marketing.

“This season’s available volume to the U.S. will be drastically reduced, and (there will be) very high retails, which can be seen in stores now.”

On Dec. 18, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported a price of $46 for 11-pound bags of jumbo bings from Chile, up from $30-32 last year at the same time.

It’s not just lower production that is limiting shipments to the U.S., Padover said. It’s also increased demand from Asia. Last year, close to two-thirds of all Chilean cherries wound up in Asia.

Chilean exporters are continuing to feel tremendous pull from Asian markets this season, he said.

Volumes were actually supposed to increase significantly the week of Dec. 17, Padover said. But then they were expected to immediately fall off another cliff.

“Next week’s volumes will be a fraction of what they were last year,” he said.


Blueberries also hit hard

Rains also have curtailed Chilean blueberry exports to the U.S.

Through Dec. 15, season-to-date shipments were up, from 10.6 million pounds in 2011 to 10.9 million pounds in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But in the week ending Dec. 15, shipments fell from the year before — from about 5 million pounds last year to about 4 million pounds this year.

And heavy rains in mid-December, combined with more rain expected late the week of Dec. 17 and into the week of Dec. 24, threatened to limit shipments even more, said Janice Honigberg, president of Chicago-based Sun Belle Inc.

“It’s been impossible to harvest,” Honigberg said Dec. 19.

Shipments to the U.S. in the second half of January and beginning of February could be severely limited because of the late December rains, she said.