In months leading up to the upcoming Chilean avocado harvest, U.S. suppliers were expecting a relatively lean crop.

Now, after a sustained freeze in July, they’re setting their sights even lower.

Chile’s National Federation of Fruit Producers said in late July that the cold touched as much as 40% of orchards.

Suppliers in the U.S. already had been expecting volumes to be 20% below last year’s take of more than 215 million pounds. Now, they say, they are expecting a decrease of another 10% to 15%.

In some years, that might be a dire scenario, as far as prospective winter volumes in the U.S. go; not this year, however.

“They have planned to hold off due to California’s large crop,” said Dave Culpeper, import/export director with West Pak Avocado Inc., Temecula, Calif. “The market has plenty of avocados right now.”

Chile’s crop is running late, though, he said.

“They’re due to come in by late September or the first of October, and the volume is such that it will probably last only into the middle to end of February, so it’s kind of a reduced season,” Culpeper said.

California will finish up with about 470 million pounds this year — well short of the record of more than 600 million pounds in 2006.

But there’s still ample supply to ease the transition into the Chilean season when that starts to peak, said Jim Donovan, vice president of global sourcing at Oxnard, Calif.-based Mission Produce Inc. and chairman of the Irvine, Calif.-based Hass Avocado Board.

“The freeze itself doesn’t look overwhelming like the last one, but on top of a short crop, it doesn’t help,” Donovan said. “The good news is even after all that, it’s still one of the larger crops that they’ll end up having. New groves are coming on. It’s not anywhere near a crop failure — just less than last year.”

Santa Paula, Calif.-based Calavo Growers Inc. has had to revise its expectations, said Rob Wedin, vice president of sales and marketing.

“We had originally thought we’d start around Aug. 15 but we changed that to Sept. 15 with the first arrivals,” Wedin said. “We think our first significant arrivals will be the first of October.”

In a normal year, big volumes start to arrive around Labor Day, Wedin noted.

Wedin also said California’s large crop will ease the transition.

“I think the large California crop may be the driver,” he said. “Last week (ending Aug. 14), they got their second-largest shipment in, at 20 million pounds for the week.”

Therefore, Chilean growers and shippers can catch a break, Wedin said.

“We have a smaller crop. California is hitting it pretty hard, so why rush it?” he said. “Let’s let the flavor build. We’re bringing everything up in controlled atmosphere, so let’s relax and let demand extend itself through February and maybe even into March.

“Why pile it on top of one of California’s biggest weeks? It gives the fruit time to size. You fill your containers a little better.”

When Chilean fruit does arrive in the U.S., it should find a strong market, Wedin said.

“The market had a downward hiccup right at the end of July or first week of August, but it’s recovered from that,” he said.

Maggie Bezart, marketing director for the Washington, D.C.-based Chilean Avocado Importers Association, rated last year as excellent for Chile’s industry.

“The retailers and foodservice operators were fantastic,” she said. “We had more than 32 major retailers. We had tailgating events. We had no problems moving the supply. Like with all growers, returns could have been better with the economy the way it was. But we felt our retail and foodservice partners gave 100%.”

In a big production year, the first Chilean fruit can enter the U.S. market as early as late August; not so, this year, Donovan said.

“The Chilean crop is gong to be off, which is not abnormal for alternate bearing,” Donovan said. “Needless to say, it will be a challenge.”

He said it would not surprise him to see the first Chilean fruit in the U.S. a month or six weeks later than last year.

But he said there’s a bright side.

“It will also stretch into 2011 a little further, and they’ll be trying to take advantage of what looks like light supplies in 2011,” he said. “We’ll be trying to expand and increase our share down there as much as we can. You might call it a bigger piece of a smaller pie.”

In 2009, it was California’s turn, with a take of around 174 million pounds, according to the California Avocado Commission, Irvine.

Shippers say they’ll be ready for whatever arrives, whenever it comes.

“We’ll receive product from three suppliers there, as usual,” said Bob Lucy, co-owner of Fallbrook, Calif.-based Del Rey Avocado Inc. “They’re projecting volume to be down 30%, but they do have a lot of big fruit. If they see an opportunity and California continues to be short of big fruit, you’ll see Chileans come in with some.”