(Feb. 25) An early season, higher volumes and prices and increased shipments to the West Coast will characterize the end of this year’s Chilean grape deal, importers say.

The Chilean grape season, which is two weeks earlier than normal, also may lead to a gap, shippers warn.

“The season will finish early,” said Dutch Bol, grape category director in the Visalia, Calif., office of The Oppenheimer Group, Vancouver, British Columbia.

“There will definitely be a gap between Chile and the early Mexican and the Coachella Valley grapes.”

Product will remain in cold storage, of course, but the last large volume shipments of thompson seedless variety will occur by April 16, Bol said.

The Hermosillo, Mexico, deal generally doesn’t start until the end of April, Bol said, which could produce a 10-day arrival gap.

“It won’t be anything like last season, where we had a very sloppy finish,” said Jim DeMalo, a principal for U.S. Produce Exchange Inc., Philadelphia.

AHEAD

Chilean volume is running 5% to 6% ahead of normal, said Darrel Fulmer, partner in Sun Fresh International LLC, Visalia.

“Many of the districts have packed out light,” he said. “New districts are starting faster than normal. It has picked up the volume and gap on the short term.”

Fulmer said he expects the situation to equalize within the next few weeks.

“By the middle to the end of March, the real shortages will start showing up,” he said.

Industry speculation, Fulmer said, has the crop at 10% to 15% short.



Importers describe pricing as slightly higher than previous years.

On Feb. 25, 18-pound lugs of thompson seedless grapes entering the Los Angeles port of entry sold for $14-16 for extra-large; $12-14 for large, $10-12 for medium; and $8-10 for small, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the same as last year in late February.

This season’s flame seedless prices were similar to last year too, with extra-large $14-16; large $12-14; medium $10-12 and small, $10.

Craig Silva, sales manager for Sierra Produce, Newport Beach, Calif., which specialize in Chilean product, said there’s a little $10-11 fruit on the West Coast, but f.o.b.s have remained in the $12-16 range for most of the season.

“With red grapes and flames, we’re seeing bigger numbers on the West Coast than during the last few years,” he said.

Silva attributed the difference to shipping schedules and the East Coast’s severe winter weather.

“There will be good volume on the late deal going through March,” he said. “There is definitely good quality and promotable fruit through the month of March.”

Chilean shipments have increased 10% from the start of the season through Feb. 21 this year compared to last year. The USDA reports 25.8 million boxes have been shipped so far vs. 23.4 million at this time last year.

U.S. Produce Exchange’s DeMalo said he sees flame prices cleaning up at $12-14 with crimsons around $14, which should help with Easter promotions.

“There will be a lot of promotional activity in March and April,” he said. “This will be a good year for Easter promotions of crimsons especially and the red globes.”

The later Easter, April 11, will allow for more Easter promotions, Silva said.

“That will give us more marketing days,” he said.

Oppenheimer’s Bol said a 10% increase in volumes and higher prices have made February good for promotions.

“In the past, the middle of February was a get-down-and-get-dirty time. We didn’t find that this year,” he said.

However, the industry, he said, must not let prices rise too high.

“We have to be careful as an industry not to price this thing out of the retailers’ ability to promote,” he said. “People start thinking we can take this market up to $20. The retailers won’t be able to promote it at those levels.”