(Dec. 17, 4:00 p.m.) U.S. importers of Chilean blueberries are expecting a strong harvest this year thanks to favorable weather, increased acreage and plantings that have reached maturity, and peak volumes should hit stores in early January.

“The weather has been in check,” said Mike Klackle, vice president of sales for Curry & Co. LLC, Brooks, Ore. “We had a good spring and early summer, as far as weather conditions, with nothing out of whack.”

The near-ideal weather has allowed an excellent crop to develop, Klackle said.

“The crop is huge this year because the weather has been outstanding,” said Dave Bowe, owner of Dave’s Specialty Imports, Coral Springs, Fla. “We couldn’t have asked for a better early season, and if it continues, it will be the largest harvest ever.”

Several other growers, while hesitant to predict a record crop, are optimistic about high volumes and increased volume reaching retail shelves early in 2009.

“We’re coming into some good numbers over the next few weeks,” said Mario Flores, blueberry business manager for Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc., Watsonville, Calif. “We’re going to be easily at 100, 120, 130,000 a week.”

Phil Neary, director of operations and grower relations for Sunny Valley International Inc., Glassboro, N.J., also anticipates an increase in the number of Chilean blueberries available this year.

“We’re figuring about 15%, maybe as much as 20% of an increase,” he said.

One of the driving factors behind this year’s swell is the increase in acreage devoted to blueberry cultivation in Chile, Flores said.

“We’re up on acreage, maybe about 10%,” Flores said. “But that’s something that’s already programmed in.”

This is coupled with plantings from previous years that are now starting to produce more.

“These plantings are becoming greater in frutation. Young acreage is maturing,” Klackle said.

Package size bump

Much of this increase in volume will be devoted to the change in packaging much of the industry is undergoing, shifting from 4.4-ounce to 6-ounce clamshells, a move that is some causing friction among importers.

“The problem is that some people decided they were going to bring in heavy volumes of the 4.4s and they’re low-balling,” Bowe said. “The few that have them, have them in big volumes.”

However, Bowe said that within a few weeks of reaching retail locations, the 4.4-ounce clamshells will have sold out, with the new, larger 6-ounce packages taking their place.

The consensus is that large numbers of Chilean blueberries will arrive at retail locations in early January, with good supplies lasting through February, before tapering off in late winter.

“The early part of January, that will be the beginning of the real true peak,” Neary said. “We’ll ramp up after the holidays and run strong through February and into early- to mid-March.”

Promotions planned

With a high quality commodity in good supply, several importers are planning blueberry promotions with their retail customers.

“We’re pretty excited,” Flores said, referring to a Driscoll’s promotion beginning in mid-January. “It’s great to have a good-looking crop coming in and having enthusiastic customers looking forward to blueberries.”

In addition to high volumes, importers across the board are also expecting a high quality harvest, again thanks to the favorable weather conditions during the growing season.

“Quality is outstanding, everything is perfect this year,” Bowe said.

This is good news for importers, especially since quality was variable last season, Flores said.

“Last season was difficult on the quality side due to the weather they had last year,” he said. “This year is very normal weather-wise. The fruit looks very good coming off the bush.”

Klackle had similar sentiments.

“There’s a better start to the season,” he said. “Last year was a nightmare weather-wise and it became overwhelming.”

While the Chilean blueberry volume has been high over the past five years, some importers said the market may be peaking.

“We’re coming to levels where the market isn’t going to produce the margins that they have in the past,” Klackle said. “It’s going to put pressure on grower margins and I believe the acres will plateau until growers can understand what to expect from the market.”

Ideal conditions lead to strong blueberry crop
Ideal weather and increased plantings have lead to an excellent blueberry crop in Chile, U.S. importers say. “We’re coming into some good numbers over the next few weeks,” says Mario Flores, blueberry business manager for Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc., Watsonville, Calif. “We’re going to be easily at 100, 120, 130,000 a week.”

Courtesy Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc.