(Sept. 12, 2:20 p.m.) Chilean fresh fruit exports to the U.S. dropped by 10% during the 2007-08 season, with a corresponding bump up in shipments to Europe, but many U.S. importers are looking to the future with optimism.

Although the annual analysis by Santiago, Chile-based Decofrut showed significant volume drops for table grapes, avocados and red apples to the U.S., some importers said cold weather limited production, and programs will be on track this season.

At the same time, the weakness of the U.S. dollar against other currencies, cited often by exporters as a hindrance to the U.S. market, isn’t as critical an issue, with more favorable rates.

“The (volume) decrease that they have experienced is because of Mother Nature. They had a major freeze last year, and it hurt the avocado deal. There were a lot of variables that were not controlled by man but by nature,” said Craig Uchizono, vice president of Southern Hemisphere for Giumarra Cos., Los Angeles. Giumarra is a major importer of avocados, table grapes, stone fruits and blueberries.

“In our berry and avocado division we have seen a constant growth, and we also continue to see grape and stone programs solidified,” Uchizono said.

Robert Verloop, Naples, Fla.-based Naturipe Farms LLC vice president of marketing, said demand for Chilean produce has increased and that shipments are growing in conventional and organic programs.

“We continue to see a very positive marketplace for Chilean products,” Verloop said. “The demand has not subsided at all, especially with our organic blueberries,” he said.

Gerry Smirniotis, vice president for the East Coast and stone fruit category director for Vancouver, British Columbia-based Oppenheimer Group, said on Sept. 10 the stone fruit crop has seen good dormancy and pollination, which bodes well for the coming season.

Smirniotis predicts that U.S. markets will welcome Chilean grapes on a timely manner, unlike last year when the crop was delayed until January.

“We are also anticipating a good season for Chilean grapes, in terms of quality, volume and timing — unlike last year, when the entire industry weathered a delay of nearly a month,” Smirniotis said.

Dimming European enthusiasm?

While many exporters have credited high fuel costs and the weakening of the dollar as primary reasons for cashing in on the European market, the past season might not have been as favorable as they had originally hoped.

David Schiro, president of Yonkers, N.Y.-based importer Jac Vandenberg Inc., one of the leading importers of Chilean fruit, said the jump in exports to Europe saturated that market during the past season.

“They thought they would do better by exporting more product to Europe, considering the currency, but it became a losing situation because they exported such an amount that the market plummeted,” Schiro said.

Recently, the dollar seems to be gaining momentum and getting a bit stronger, a favorable sign to U.S. importers.

On Sept. 11, the Chilean peso against the U.S. dollar was about 531-to1, but during this past spring, the rate was 430-to-1.

“International currency dynamics are much more favorable for shipping to North America this (season), and that’s great news for us and for our growers”, Smirniotis said.

Apart from the currency issue, however, Smirniotis said Europe offers many benefits to Chilean exporters.

“Europe presents a lower-risk market environment for Chilean exports because European buyers pay more fixed prices back to the growers, so there is less variability in pricing,” he said.

Schiro said he doesn’t know if the trend of increasing exports to Europe will continue, but Chilean exporters will make the final decision.

But whether the exchange rate goes up or down, or fuel prices continue to rise, the general sentiment among U.S. importers is that they’ll carry good volumes throughout the season, and pre-season sales efforts have been favorable.

“The impact on the exchange rate and transportation costs have not been that drastic. We have been able to manage around them,” Verloop said.

“The stage is set for an excellent trading season for Chilean fruit, as long as the end quality is as great as it was last year,” Smirniotis said.