(Dec. 24) Buyers looking forward to the Chilean blueberry season should be rewarded with greater volume, better quality and familiar prices as the new year begins.

“It’s off to a great start,” said John Shelford, president of Naples, Fla.-based Global Berry Farms LLC. “We’ve had an excellent beginning. Shipments are ahead of last year by 10% to 15% in amount.”

Last year importers brought in about 2.8 million cartons of Chilean blueberries. This year the forecast is for 3.5 million cases, an increase of nearly three-quarters of a million and a record total, Shelford said.

Importers have been bringing Chilean blueberries in by air since late October, said Dave Bowe, owner of Dave’s Specialty Imports Inc., Miami. Ships with blueberries began arriving in early December, he said.

Most of the early season blueberries have been in trays of 4.4-ounce containers. But Bowe said he expected the packaging to switch over to trays of 12 dry half pints by Jan. 9.

“That may be a week late, but the volume will be much better than last year,” Bowe said. “It’ll be better than two years ago, when they had a very good harvest. It will be our largest crop ever.”

On Dec. 16, flats of a dozen 4.4-ounce cups with lids of medium-sized berries brought mostly $17-18, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A year before, the USDA reported flats of a dozen 4.4-ounce cups with lids sold for $18 f.o.b.

And buyers should find the quality to be appealing as well.

“The weather has been outstanding,” Bowe said. “The production is getting into peak right now. I think the quality so far has been wonderful, and I expect that to continue.”

Shelford agreed.

“The quality is phenomenal,” he said. “This year has had some of the finest quality for November and December that I have ever seen. We’re looking forward to a great February.”

Shelford said he expected the dry half pints to be available for at least five weeks, from mid January until about Valentine’s Day.

Last year, the Chilean blueberry deal was confused by a combination of inaccurate forecasting and bad weather, Shelford said.

“The forecast was based on a good crop, but the size didn’t show up and there was drop due to rains,” he said. “There was a frost period that caused damage. We fell way short of estimates from January through Feb. 20.”

But that doesn’t appear to be happening this year, Bowe said. And because demand continues to rise even as imports of Chilean blueberries increase, prices should remain similar to last year’s, he said.