(Oct. 27) High blueberry f.o.b.s have spurred U.S. shippers to deplete controlled-atmosphere supplies early this year, giving berries from Argentina and Chile significant boosts as they enter their seasons.

Late October prices for imported blueberries were between $38-42 for flats of 12 4.4-ounce cups with lids, compared to the $24-28 f.o.b.s at the same time last season. Even with signifi-cantly higher air freight costs this season, exporters and importers said they’re rushing to get more product to eager retailers who are finding minimal domestic berries.

“We just finished our controlled-atmosphere product yesterday, and traditionally, we would hold the fruit until about Thanksgiving,” Bradley Evers, sales manager at Sheridan, Ore.-based Hurst’s Berry Farm Inc., said on Oct. 26. “With Argentina coming in early this year with higher quality and better pricing, it’s changing the demographics of the controlled-atmosphere (domestic) storage.”

Michigan exited the market in mid-October.

Argentina started with small numbers, but is ramping up production sooner than normal, Evers said, with strong supplies after the first week of November. With Chile’s production not hitting peak volumes until January, marketers expect strong markets through the end of the year.

“Once November arrives, we should get larger volumes for the holidays, and the peak is in January and February,” John Hedges, vice president of Washington D.C.-based Sun Belle Inc., said from the company’s Chicago location.

HOLIDAY OPPORTUNITIES

Although a new year will signal the start of more promotions for Chilean blueberries, Hedges said there will be opportunities for the holiday season. Like others in the industry, he said the double-digit increases in transportation costs are easier to bear with the higher mar-kets. Although blueberries, unlike blackberries and raspberries, can withstand the week-plus ocean trip, exporters send early season blueberries by air to take advantage of lower domestic supplies, particularly when the season gaps as it did in October.

Sofia Rebolledo, sales director for Santiago, Chile-based blueberry exporter SRI Ltd., said blueberry production is increasing in Chile, with an estimate of almost 7,500 acres, with pro-duction going from 5.3 million flats to more than 7 million flats. SRI, which is the sole provider of Chilean blueberries to Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc., Watsonville, Calif., shipped almost 800,000 flats in 2003-04. Exports will continue to rise, Rebolledo said, increasing again this year.

Felipe Juillerat, sales manager of Vital Berry Marketing SA, Santiago, said Chilean blueberry production will increase about 25%, but fresh raspberry production will remain about the same because of the strong frozen market. Likewise, Argentina’s blueberry production will increase about 35%, he said.

OTHER BERRIES

Tim Youmans, national retail sales manager for Driscoll, said rains in the Salinas/Watsonville area have delayed planting for next spring’s strawberry crop, and Oxnard’s raspberry production has been limited, too. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported flats of 12 6-ounce cups of raspberries from Salinas/Watsonville were $28.90 on Oct. 25, as the season waned.

Hedges said flats of Chilean raspberries are in the high $30s.

Mexico’s blackberry and raspberry season will stretch through March, and those items, combined with strawberry supplies from Mexico, will decrease truck problems, because Dris-coll can transport full loads, Youmans said.

“We’re coming on with a really good crop (of Mexican blackberries),” Hurst’s Evers said. “It’s mostly the summit variety, medium-sized. The early season started shipping the 13th of October, and that will go through mid- to late December.”