(Jan. 15) So far this season, U.S. arrivals of Chilean stone fruit and grapes have been dramatically higher than previous seasons, importers say.

Shippers attribute the increases to an earlier start to the Chilean season, as well as new plantings coming into production. Chilean cherries are leading the trend, with vessel arrivals as of early January at 779,976 11-pound cartons, compared to 343,084 the same time last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Volumes ahead for the Chilean fruit deal won’t be easy to predict, shippers say.

Shipments of Chilean stone fruit typically wind down toward late March, said Rick Eastes, director of Latin American procurement in the Visalia, Calif., office of The Oppenheimer Group, Vancouver, British Columbia. This season, volumes should stay heavy through February, but it’s hard to say what will happen beyond that, he said.

Chile has so many new varieties of stone fruit coming into production, but at the same time, others are being reduced, Eastes said.

Plus, growers eager for higher markets might report short crops ahead even if that’s not the case, said Darrel Fulmer, partner, Sun Fresh International LLC, Visalia.

Chilean grape arrivals generally end around April 20, when the Coachella marketing order takes effect.

Lower f.o.b.s this season have helped fuel movement of Chilean grapes through the U.S. pipeline. Coupled with an early production schedule, that could translate to lighter supplies at the end of the deal and help reduce the collision between Chile and Mexico, Eastes said.

But projections also show continued growth for the Chilean crimson crop, which two years ago reached 1.3 million 18-pound lugs, he said. Last season, it reached 4 million. This season, with new acreage coming into production, total Chilean production of crimsons could reach 7 million to 8 million lugs.
Most U.S. arrivals of Chilean crimsons should come in April, Eastes said.

Broc Bengard, sales manager of Bengard Marketing Inc., Los Angeles, who said the stone fruit deal has been running one to two weeks ahead of schedule, said it could end earlier than usual and see production gaps.
In light of lower U.S. pricing so far this season, Chile might not be so eager to keep sending more product here, Bengard said.

“Hopefully, we’ll see the retailers kick in and starting promoting at reasonable levels, and that will help increase movement,” he said.

Cherries should wind down by late January, Bengard said. Later arrivals have been made possible through the use of modified-atmosphere bags, he said.

Because of this season’s higher production to date for the Chilean fruit deal, markets have been noticeably lower.

In mid-January, Bengard reported f.o.b.s for two-layer cartons of Chilean nectarines at $6 for 60s, $8 for 50s and $8-10 for 40s. Usually, those prices don’t come until mid- to late February, he said.

Last year, the USDA reported Los Angeles f.o.b.s for Chilean nectarines at 40-42s $14-16, 48-50s $12-14 and 60s $9-12.

Grapes also continued to see lower than usual prices in mid-January. The USDA reported the following Los Angeles f.o.b.s for lugs of thompson seedless: extra-large $16, large $14, medium $12 and small $8-10. The same time last year, f.o.b.s were at extra-large $18-20, large $16-20, medium $14-18 and small $14-16.

Flame seedless extra-large were at $14-16 this season, compared to $20-22 the same time last year, according to the USDA.

Fulmer said most retailers had helped move the Chilean stone fruit and grapes through the pipeline via promotions. For example, some retailers have moved Chilean thompsons at 99 cents a pound, a price usually seen for California grapes during the summer.

But he said if growers misrepresent production ahead — and if U.S. retailers don’t have the opportunity to plan for promotions — it could leave a glut on the market.

“A short crop becomes long really quick,” Fulmer said.

Eastes said higher volumes to date for the Chilean grapes were largely due to the early production schedule. Some exporters who’ve completed harvest in the Copiapo Valley report normal crops to volumes 10% above average, he said.

Bengard said the last Chilean stone fruit arrivals are usually in mid-March. Around that time, Sonora, Mexico, begins exporting to the U.S., he said.