(Updated coverage, Sept. 3) Despite the recession and a new competitor to contend with, South African citrus grower-shippers are pleased with sales of their fruit in the U.S. this summer.

By the end of September, when the last of the shipments from South Africa are expected to arrive, an estimated 35,000 tons of navels, clementines and other citrus will have been exported to the U.S., similar to last year’s season-end total, according to a news release from the Western Cape Citrus Producers’ Forum, which represents about 350 South African citrus exporters.

“I certainly think the season was a success,” Piet Smit, president of Cedarpack Pty. Ltd., Citrusdal, South Africa, said in an e-mail. “We put a lot of emphasis on quality and service, and delivered on all the promises.”

That gave importers and retailers confidence to plan promotions accordingly, he said.

Grower-shippers knew that 2009 would be one of their most difficult years in the U.S. market because of the depressed economy and the fact that Chile would be exporting navels to the U.S. for the first time, Gerrit van der Merwe, chairman of the producers’ forum, said in the news release.

The only way to overcome these challenges, van der Merwe said, was to improve as many aspects of the supply chain as possible and to deliver only the best quality citrus that growers were capable of delivering.

Exporters were able to do that, van der Merwe said, by taking advantage of lower fuel costs and switching to smaller vessels that permitted greater shipping flexibility.

That allowed the industry to increase the frequency of the availability of fruit, further ensuring quality, freshness and taste, he said.

While navel exports from South Africa to the U.S. were down this summer, clementine exports were up, thanks, van der Merwe speculates, to consumers’ desire for smaller fruit. Clementines sold in two- and three-pound bags proved to be especially popular this summer, he said.