Europe, Asia and other export markets offer attractive export opportunities for many Chilean blueberry shippers, but U.S. importers, retailers and consumers needn’t worry about not having fruit this winter, importers and industry officials said.

“There is no question that buyers in North America are competing for fruit with emerging markets,” said Tom Tjerandsen, managing director for North America for the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association, Sonoma, Calif. “Exporters assure us that they intend to protect their long-term relationship with north American receivers.”

One of the reasons they can do that, Tjerandsen said, is because Chilean growers continue to boost production, and the product keeps getting better.

“Growers continue to add hectares, with new varieties in new areas,” he said.

In late September, the earliest blueberry growing regions in northern Chile were beginning to produce light volumes, said Tom Richardson, general manager in the Wenatchee, Wash., office of Los Angeles-based The Giumarra Cos.

And it wasn’t headed north.

“Most of that is exclusively going to Asia,” Richardson said.

Japan, he said, is still in a position where it’s not accepting blueberries from Argentina. As a result, Chilean product is being used to plug that gap.

The Japanese, Richardson said, are making Chilean shippers offers they can’t refuse.

“Fruit is going there at very high prices,” he said.

North America still top destination

In general, more Chilean blueberries are finding their way to Asia, Europe and other overseas markets, Richardson said. But that doesn’t mean less product is going to U.S. markets. Far from it.

In fact, non-U.S. markets play a vital role in a North American market that has required higher production to meet stronger and stronger demand.

“North America has always been by far the principal market for consumption of fresh blueberries,” he said. “As production has grown, Asia, Europe and other export markets are becoming more and more important to relieve the added pressure of ever-increasing volumes.”

Diversification, Richardson said, is in Chilean shippers’ best interests.

“They’re looking for emerging markets, because the North American market is pretty fully supplied,” he said. “Those markets are very important for Chile.”

Chicago-based Sun Belle Inc. began shipping early-season Chilean blueberries to Asia in early October, said Janice Honigberg, the company’s president.

She expects exports to be up significantly this year, with rival markets increasing at a faster rate than the U.S.

“Fresh exports are expected to increase overall about 15%-20%. It’s unclear how much shipments to the U.S. will grow this year, due to continuing excellent demand in Asia and Europe. My guess is 5%-10%.”

Cindy Jewell, director of marketing for California Giant Inc., Watsonville, Calif., agrees that expanding markets for Chilean blueberries beyond North America is a good thing.

California Giant officials attended the Fruit Logistica conference in Berlin this year and was impressed with the strong demand for blueberries among Asian buyers, in particular.

“It just shows the opportunity for more growth,” she said. “It’s why we keep increasing production.”

There’s no question that Europe is an attractive destination for many shippers of Chilean blueberries, said Brian Bocock, vice president of product management in the Grand Junction, Mich., office of Naples, Fla.-based Naturipe Farms LLC.

But the U.S. market has certain advantages that Europe can’t match, Bocock said.

“Europe is a factor, but at the end of the day, Europe doesn’t have a lot of flexibility, moving up and down on volume,” he said.

Asia could be a bigger rival for Chilean blueberries in the coming years, but again, Bocock said U.S. importers shouldn’t be too worried.

“I expect Asia to grow, but if it takes some from the U.S., it will be very minimal.”