(Sept. 24, 4:00 p.m.) September freezes in Argentina claimed a projected 2,000 tons of blueberries in the Tucumán region of the country, but production in two other growing areas should boost the country to 30% more volume than last year, importers said — and a later start to the season means imports won’t directly compete with domestic berries.

Ulises Sabato, owner of Blueberries S.A., Buenos Aires, said most of the packing facilities have left Tucumán, so surviving fruit is not being harvested. The region, which produces up to 30% of the country’s blueberries in a normal year, was originally projected to produce 3,000 tons this year.

The U.S. received 5,215 tons of blueberries from Argentina in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Sabato predicted Argentina will still produce 10,000 to 11,000 tons of fruit this year, with 9,000 to 10,000 tons going to the fresh market. He said 60% of that should come to the U.S.

Cooler than normal weather throughout the country has delayed harvest for growers by two weeks, on average. The Tucumán region usually ships most of the early season fruit.

Giumarra VBM International Berry LLC, a division of The Giumarra Cos., Los Angeles, lost 30% of its fruit in the region to the freezes. Stan Crafton, general manager, said Giumarra started harvesting in the Tucumán region the second week of September and received its first shipment the following week.

“We’re actually receiving fruit now in very, very small quantities, with increasing volumes by the end of next week,” Crafton said Sept. 23. “We expect to increase weekly through October, with the peak of the season at the beginning of November.”

Washington, D.C.-based Sun Belle Inc. is also still in the game in the Tucumán region. The company received its first shipment the third week of September. Janice Honigberg, president, said the company lost 50% of its berries out of the region.

Honigberg said recent cool weather in Argentina delayed Sun Belle’s harvest only a few days, and the company’s growers are already harvesting in the Concordia region, as well. She expects Sun Belle to see a 45% increase in business from Argentina overall, despite the losses.

Dave Bowe, owner of Coral Springs, Fla.-based Dave’s Specialty Imports Inc., said he was originally told shipments would start mid-September, but that date was pushed back twice by two weeks each time. He expected to get his first shipment the second week of October.

“Generally there’s an overlap (with the domestic crop) or a shortage, but that would be perfect,” Bowe said.

Bowe predicted the rest of the country, besides the Tucumán region, would about double production this year. He expected Dave’s Specialty Imports to double its imports to about 500,000 cases this year.

Phil Neary, director of operations and grower relations for Glassboro, N.J.-based Sunny Valley International Inc., said he expects the company’s first shipment by early October. Sunny Valley has growers in the Concordia and Buenos Aires regions of Argentina. Neary said the company should move similar volumes to last year.

Blueberries S.A. is looking at a bumper crop this year, Sabato said. The company expects to ship 4 to 5 million pounds from Argentina this October through December. Sabato said he expects to start harvesting Oct. 1, which is 15 days later than he would in a normal year.

Most of the berries coming out of Argentina travel by air, despite the higher cost than shipping by sea. Bowe predicted a $16 minimum f.o.b. from Argentina because of the $5 air freight cost. Sabato said he is looking at an $18 minimum f.o.b. in Miami per 12-count flat of 4.4-ounce clamshells.

Sabato said he predicted better pricing earlier in the season, close to $35 per flat in October, with prices around $20 by December when volume from Chile starts to come in strong.

Vessel shipments cost about $1.10 per flat, Bowe said. Sabato predicted 20% of Argentina’s blueberries might travel by sea this season, up from about 5% last year.

Argentine blueberries trickle into U.S.
Dave Bowe, owner of Coral Springs, Fla.-based Dave’s Specialty Imports Inc., says he was originally told Argentine blueberry shipments would start mid-September, but that date was pushed back twice by two weeks each time. He expects to get his first shipment the second week of October.

Courtesy Dave’s Specialty Imports