New Zealand continues to play a key role in the North American fruit market, shippers and marketing agents say.

“I would say it fills a nice niche here,” said Eric Patrick, Yakima, Wash.-based marketing director for the Grant J. Hunt Co., Oakland, Calif.

“With kiwifruit, they’ve developed a strong following over the years,” he said. “There’s a lot of competition with California and Chile, but New Zealand fills a nice niche. The product has consistently good quality, which customers like.”

New Zealand’s apple program also is showing signs of growth, he said.

“It’s developing,” he said.

However, others have a less optimistic view of U.S. apple imports from New Zealand.

Apple and pear shipments have seen no growth, said Tom Richardson, manager of The Giumarra Cos., Wenatchee, Wash.

“It’s actually declining,” he said. “The pipfruit industry has a significantly slower than normal crop this year. The volumes that are coming to North America are also significantly reduced compared to last year and to most previous years.”

Even so, New Zealand’s apples continue to be the import apple of choice from the Southern Hemisphere, he said.

The greater focus is on kiwifruit.

New Zealand has built a strong reputation in North America, said Steve Woodyear-Smith, kiwifruit category director for the Vancouver, British Columbia-based Oppenheimer Group.

“Zespri kiwifruit is eagerly anticipated by retailers throughout North America for its premium quality and excellent flavor,” he said. “Kiwifruit growers in New Zealand are committed to harvesting at the right brix level for the fruit to ripen and taste sweet.”

New Zealand-based kiwifruit marketer Zespri International Ltd. markets product in North America through Oppenheimer.

“While our volumes are roughly the same as 2010, Zespri remains highly committed to this market,” Woodyear-Smith said. “We will have a fruit in a full range of sizes and pack-styles for our customers.”

Oppenheimer and Zespri recently hosted a number of North American retailers in New Zealand, which provided the retailers some valuable insights into the crops and production practices, Woodyear-Smith said.

“It is always a valuable experience, which helps growers understand the realities of our market, and our customers can build their knowledge about what differentiates New Zealand-grown fruit from the competition,” he said.

Michele Hoard, senior marketing manager, Zespri International, said her company ships to North America from mid-May through November, with ships arriving regularly at different ports in North America.

“We continue to raise the bar and encourage other growing regions to adopt our great growing standards to help the entire category,” she said.

New Zealand plays a particularly important role in specialty items, said Hazel Kelly, spokeswoman for Frieda’s Inc., Los Alamitos, Calif.

“For specialties like tamarillos, New Zealand is one of the only commercial suppliers to the U.S.,” she said.

Kelly said Export NZ Wellington branch reports that 99.6% of all export/imports are traded via ship.

Shipments from New Zealand to North America likely will remain strong and secure, Kelly said, adding that Maurice Williamson, New Zealand’s Minister of Customs and Small Business, “has secured a big competitive advantage for exporters to the U.S.

“The Mutual Recognition Agreement signed between the two countries’ customs agencies has been improved: New Zealand shipments processed at U.S. borders are now 3.5 times less likely than any other trade to be examined for security (terrorism-related) reasons if the exporter is a member of New Zealand’s Secure Exporters Scheme — that already showed their goods were low risk,” she said. “New Zealand is the only country known to have this advantage.”