(Oct. 20) SANTIAGO, Chile — In the heart of Chile’s stone fruit region, the fruit-laden tree limbs in mid-October told the story of what U.S. retailers can expect this winter: plenty of plums, nectarines, peaches and cherries.

“There’s a lot of thinning to be done,” said Juan Pablo Torrealba, managing director of Andes Chile SA, Rancagua, on a recent tour of a 1,400-acre farm near Rancagua, where workers have until Nov. 6 to complete thinning of all stone fruit crops.

From stone fruit to berries and avocados, it’s the same story in many of Chile’s growing regions, including significant increases in expected cherry shipments. Last year, the cherry crop was on an off cycle, shipping 878,000 boxes of cherries, compared to the 1.5 million boxes in 2002-03. In many cases, cherry exporters expect to see at least a 30% growth in cherry volumes.

“This coming season, it will be a challenge to allocate the growth of our production,” said Cristian Undurraga, general manager of Del Monte Fresh Produce Chile SA, which is the second-leading exporter in Chile, trailing Dole Chile’s 15.9 million boxes by less than 450,000 boxes.

Del Monte shipped 6.7 million boxes of grapes last season. Undurraga said that will increase 5% to 8% throughout Chile’s grape season, late November through April. The company’s cherries will see 20% to 30% growth also, shipping from mid-October through mid-December.

With the North American blueberry season all but over — a few Oregon shippers had minimal amounts of controlled-atmosphere berries in mid-October — Chilean shippers have hopes that the favorable markets seen in Michigan this summer and fall will translate into a profitable season, which lasts from early November through March.

“The winter has been very good, regarding the temperatures, and so far this spring, we’ve seen weather that’s favorable for blooming and the bees (for pollination),” said Felipe Juillerat, Vital Berry Marketing SA, Santiago.

Of the 197.4 million boxes of fruit, including avocados, exported from Chile during the 2003-04 season, the 89.6 million went to North America, followed by 66.2 million to Europe. For U.S. markets, that represents a significant growth, with North American exports increasing from 75.6 million just two years ago.

Ronald Bown, president of the Santiago-based Chilean Exporters Association, said the U.S. remains the top importer of Chilean fruit and exports to North America continue to grow. Several factors in recent years, however, have led to higher percentages of growth in the European market. Those factors include free trade agreements that have decreased European tariffs, and an exchange rate that favors the euro.

But by all accounts, exporters still see the U.S. as a natural partner in trade.

“I foresee a growth in the United States,” said Arturo Costabal, marketing director for Unifrutti Traders Ltda., Santiago, the third-largest exporter in Chile in 2003-04, shipping 11.3 million boxes of stone fruit, grapes, apples and other fruit to the U.S. and other countries. “Our customers are growing, and we will grow with them.”

Exporters, many of whom were negotiating contracts with freight companies in early October, said they’ll see freight rates grow anywhere from 15% to 25%. Although it will be a significant factor in expenses, transportation costs won’t cause exporters to redefine how much they plan to send to the U.S.

“Every single year we have run into some problem, but we see continued growth, regardless of the issues,” Juillerat said. “Consumption in the U.S. is increasing.”