(Feb. 27, 2:42 p.m.) Lower volumes of stone fruit from Chile have stabilized markets, and prices shouldn’t change much as peach, nectarine and plum deals start to wind down in March, importers said.

Weather hasn’t been the issue, said Broc Bengard, vice president of Los Angeles-based Bengard Marketing. Instead, it’s the economy limiting shipments.

“Most people are taking a cautious approach, and the Chileans aren’t pushing as much,” he said.

As a result, Bengard said, pricing has been pretty good on Chilean stone fruit this year. And he doesn’t expect markets to fluctuate much between now and late March or early April, when shipments wind down.

Aggressive pricing in January helped improve a sluggish market, said Jerry Smirniotis, East Coast vice president and stone fruit category director for Vancouver, British Columbia-based The Oppenheimer Group.

In some cases, prices fell from $2.50-2.99 to 99 cents-$1.49 per pound, he said.

“It’s improved tremendously,” Smirniotis said. “We’ve had tremendous participation from many major chains, and price-wise right now we’re real similar to last year.”

On Feb. 24, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported prices of $10-12 for two-layer tray packs of peaches 40-50s from Chile, up from $5-9 last year at the same time.

Two-layer tray packs of nectarines 40s were $12, up from $10-12 last year.

Two-layer tray packs of plums 40s were $12-14, comparable to last year.

Through Feb. 24, about 47.5 million pounds of peaches had been imported from Chile, down from 48.5 million pounds last year at the same time, according to the USDA.

About 43.1 million pounds of nectarines had been imported, about the same as last year, and 40 million pounds of plums had been imported, up from 36.3 million pounds.

Promotions on Chilean peaches, nectarines and plums should continue through mid-March, before volumes begin declining, Smirniotis said.

Chilean peach imports are down about 10% from last year at Jac Vandenberg Inc., Yonkers, N.Y., said Craig Padover, stone fruit category manager. Nectarine shipments are down 4% and plum shipments are about even, he said.

That’s on top of a 15% drop in the company’s Chilean stone fruit program last year.

Vandenberg expects to bring peaches and nectarines in through March, and plums possibly through mid-April.

“The whole stone fruit category isn’t seeing the growth we’d like to see,” Padover said.

It’s not just the economy, he said. Perhaps because peaches, nectarines and plums have pits, consumers don’t see them as being as convenient as other fruits, he said.

Nevertheless, volumes coming from Chile this year have created a manageable marketing environment, Padover said.

“I’ve been surprised at the steadiness of the market,” he said. “I was concerned that stone fruit imports would be more affected by the economy, but it’s been moving. We haven’t seen the lows we were afraid (the market) would go to.”

Having said that, the market also hasn’t gotten too high, Padover said, thanks to retail pressure to keep a ceiling on prices in a recession.

Volumes have been especially light this season on Chilean black plums because of increased demand from Asia, Bengard said.

Quality-wise, this season’s peaches and nectarines from Chile are, on average, not as sweet as usual, Bengard said, but color has been above average.

Padover reported good growing conditions and quality out of Chile this season.

Smirniotis reported smaller sizing on this year’s stone fruit crop, and said that was more responsible than anything for the lighter volumes from Chile. Much of the fruit grown in Chile this season did not meet the size demands of many U.S. retailers, he said.

Craig Padover, stone fruit category manager for Yonkers, N.Y.-based Jac Vandenberg Inc., says shipments of Chilean nectarines are down 4% from last year.

Courtesy Jac Vandenberg Inc.