Most importers of Peruvian sweet onions expect steady to strong demand this season, with a late start for many clearing the pipeline of domestic sweets.
Cool weather late in the Peruvian growing season was slowing shipments and turning colossals into jumbos, said Rawls Neville, director of sales and marketing for Four Corners Farms, Register, Ga.
But it wasn’t affecting quality, Neville said — and that was good news on the marketing end.
“Demand seems to be very good because of the quality,” he said. “It’s been excellent.”
After a brief sourcing trip out to West Coast growing states following the end of the Vidalia deal, retailers in September were clamoring for Peruvians, Neville said.
“A few chains swapped over to the West while the price equalized, but now they’re coming back to Peru,” he said.
Further, Neville said, 2009 supplies will likely ship in a consistent, orderly manner, raising the likelihood of a continuation of strong demand.
“It’s not a flood, but a good, constant trickle,” he said. “I expect them (markets) to stay strong.”
Peruvian imports could be down a little bit this fall for Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Wada Farms Marketing Group LLC because of competing demand for domestic sweets, said John Vlahandreas, the company’s national onion sales director.
“The domestic market is projected to be a little higher than last year,” Vlahandreas said.
Simultaneous with the Peruvian deal, Wada markets domestic sweets grown in Washington. They’re not the renowned Walla Wallas, but a variety that follows the Walla Walla and stores much better, Vlahandreas said.
It’s not a Peruvian, he said, but it’s cheaper, and for some consumers, that’s enough. And it provides a market option that wasn’t available until recently.
“It’s made huge strides from where it was,” Vlahandreas said of the Washington fall sweet. “They’re doing a great job with it. Some people want a Peruvian, but others just want one that’s sweet.”
In mid-September, Peruvian imports were still just trickling in, and Wada had not seen a huge amount of demand for them, Vlahandreas said.
But that will change.
“By mid-October, there will be people on (Peruvian) programs asking for it,” he said. “Right now there are still a lot of summer sweets out there.”
Other forces could keep Peruvian volumes in check this year, he said. For one, growers may be maximizing their capacity for growing sweets slated for the U.S. Domestic consumption in Peru also has gone up, Vlahandreas said, keeping more onions at home.
Had its domestic deal finished on time, there could have been a more significant supply gap for Zeeland, Mich.-based DeBruyn Produce Co., given the three-week delay in its Peruvian deal, said Jill Phillips, vice president.
There was a slight gap, Phillips said, but the compan’'s Vidalia deal fortunately finished a bit later this year.
Peruvian sweet markets this season are likely to be less roller coaster-like than in the past, now that the industry has reached an age where it’s grown up a bit and learned a few lessons, said Kurt Schweitzer, co-owner of Keystone Fruit Marketing Inc., Greencastle, Pa.
“It’s going to be a steady season,” Schweitzer said. “I think the Peruvian sweet deal is finally getting some maturity, which is good.”
Much has changed, he said, since Keystone brought in its first load of Peruvians in 1996. The company now grows its own onions in Peru, in addition to sourcing from several partner growers, Schweitzer said.
“We’re not seeing the high peaks, and then the lows,” he said. “We have dedicated people who know what they’re doing with them, and we feel good about that. Customers don’t have the big surprises they have when there are wide swings in production.”
The transition from domestic production to Peru this year boded well for strong markets, Schweitzer added.
“If you look at the Vidalias on the East Coast this year, the pipeline is a little cleaner than normal,” he said.
Keystone grows some certified “long day” sweet onions in Washington, Schweitzer said, but unlike what he calls “true sweets” — Peruvians, Vidalias and Texas 1015s — the Western long days don’t store nearly as well.
As a result, they typically clean out well in time to make way for the import sweets, he said.
The cold weather late in the growing season delayed shipments of Peruvian sweet onions significantly for Sweet Onion Trading Co., Palm Bay, Fla.
But the company’s domestic deals were carrying the load in September, said Barry Rogers, president.
“We have a 150-load deal out West,” he said.
After Sweet Onion Trading’s Central California deal started to wind down in late August, the company kicked off a 100-load Nevada sweet deal the week of Aug. 31, Rogers said. Sweet Onion Trading also brokers some Washington State sweets in the summer, he said.
Once the Peruvian deal gets up and running, Rogers is hopeful that cash markets in Venezuela and other of Peru’s Latin American neighbors will help prevent a glut of product, the possible result of product “piling up” because of the delayed harvest, Rogers said.
Despite the late start, the Peruvian deal will likely follow its similar demand curve, Rogers said, with the market softening in mid-October as volumes increase.
After a bit of a sluggish start in August because of late-season Vidalias still lingering in the pipeline, movement was steadier by September, said Richard Pazderski, director of sales and marketing for Bland Farms LLC, Glennville, Ga.
Pazderski expected demand to strengthen as the season progressed. The company’s concurrent Empire Sweet and Utah sweet onion deals would not likely steal market share from Peru, he said.
“Peru is certainly superior by far to anything that’s domestic now,” he said.
Delbert Bland, Bland Farms’ president, agreed, pointing out that round-shaped domestic sweets can’t compete with their flat-shaped cousins.
“This industry was built on flat onions, and flat Peruvians will out-sell those rounds every time,” he said. “The customer will pay more for Peruvians, but he’s not paying an extra dime for a sweet round that looks like the onions he buys every day.”
While it was still early in the deal, in early September Kevin Hendrix, vice president of Metter, Ga.-based Hendrix Produce Inc., was reporting strong demand for Peruvian sweets.
“The market has been really good so far,” he said.
Much of the credit for that can go to timely ends to domestic sweet deals, Hendrix said.
“There may be one or two shippers with a few left, but I think most everybody’s finished with Vidalias,” he said.
And while Hendrix Produce does have a small Walla Walla sweet deal out of Washington, by early September the company wasn’t shipping any, Hendrix said.
Hendrix expects demand to continue to be strong as the deal progresses.