(UPDATED COVERAGE, Nov. 1) ANAHEIM, Calif. — The two biggest blueberry exporters in South America are one, and that should bring many more imported berries under Naturipe’s sales banner in the U.S.

Announced Oct. 26 at Fresh Summit 2012 Hortifrut S.A., one of the partner-owners of Naples, Fla.-based Naturipe Farms LLC, merged with Santiago-based Vital Berry, the second-largest berry grower-exporter in South America. The companies primarily export blueberries but also handle blackberries and raspberries.

Nicolas Moller, chief executive officer of Hortifrut Chile S.A., Santiago, said Oct. 26 at the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit in Anaheim that the merger came together over the past couple of months.

“We found common ground very easily,” he said.

With an estimated combined business of about $300 million, he said the merged company should be able to serve customers in North America with more volume in the winter.
A quarter of the Hortifrut shares go to the grower-owners of Vital Berry, Moller said.

“We are delighted with the opportunity of joining Hortifrut and be part of Naturipe Farms sales and marketing organizations,” Andres Solari, chairman of the board for Vital Berry Marketing S.A., said in a news release.

The merger allows Naturipe to better serve retail and foodservice customers in North America, said Robert Verloop, Naturipe’s executive vice president of marketing.

He said existing packaging for Vital Berry may be used up before a complete transition to Naturipe packaging in the U.S.

Vital Berry and Hortifrut did not reveal annual volumes of shipped berries, but Expordata Yearbook 2012 indicates that Hortifrut exported 3.8 million cases, and Vital Berry exported 2.6 million cases of Chilean fruit to all markets in 2011-12. No data was available for exports from Argentina, Mexico or other countries, but Chile accounts for about 60% U.S. blueberry imports.

Much of the berries that will come to Naturipe will be come from production from Vital Berry’s own land, Verloop said.

“Today more and more retailers and foodservice operators want to deal direct with the source and for us this gives a larger grower-owned base,” Verloop said.

He said imported berries from the Southern Hemisphere will increase in November and December and in January and February.

“We’re encouraging our key customers to look at having blueberries as a heavy promotional item right after the new year with the focus being on healthy lifestyles,” Verloop said.

Verloop said 18-ounce packs and larger are increasingly more popular when supply is strongest.

Consumer demand has been limited by supplies, particularly from September through March, he said.

“We feel this is a tremendous opportunity to build the business with consumers and for us to increase activities with key accounts,” Verloop said.

Tom Richardson, general manager in the Wenatchee, Wash., office of Los Angeles-based The Giumarra Cos., said Giumarra was previously the largest U.S. receiver of Vital Berry product and has worked with Vital Berry in North American through a limited liability corporation partnership for about seven years.

However, in April this year Vital Berry and Giumarra made a mutual decision to dissolve the partnership. One reason for the separation was that Vital Berry had an interest in the European and Asian markets, while Giumarra focuses on North America, Richardson said.

Because Giumarra started developing a supply base in addition to Vital Berry three years ago, Richardson said the company remains in a strong position.

“Our Chilean blueberry supplies are actually going to be larger this year than in 2011-12,” he said.

Richardson declined to estimate volume, but said Giumarra would again be one of the larger blueberry importers in North America. Supplies will arrive from early December and continue through March and possibly early April.

“We will be fully supplied and taking care of our customer base, going forward with our year-round blueberry business,” he said.

Chilean blueberry production will be up about 15% this year, Richardson said.

The berry category is perhaps the hottest category in the fresh produce department, with per-capita retail availability in 2010 at 1 pound, double the levels in 2006.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports U.S. berry imports are increasing at a rapid pace from Mexico and Southern Hemisphere countries, with fresh blueberry imports from Chile rising from $92 million in 2007 to $220 million in 2011. Likewise, blueberry imports from Argentina have grown from $38 million in 2007 to $60 million in 2011, according to the USDA.

Mexico has seen the most impressive growth for raspberry exports to the U.S., rising from $58 million in 2007 to $140 million in 2011. Imports of Mexican blackberries from January to August 2012 totaled $75 million, up from $40 million in all of 2011.