Fred Wilkinson, Managing Editor
Fred Wilkinson, Managing Editor

CITRUSDAL, South Africa — Citrus producers around the world are finding the U.S. market is going soft — soft citrus, that is.

Like other citrus suppliers, South Africa is benefiting from rising demand for easy-to-peel citrus, thanks in part to the success of Cuties brand clementines’ media blitz and the earlier popularity of Spanish clementines.

“Mouton Citrus’ major growth will be in easy-peelers,” said Johan Mouton, managing director of Mouton Citrus (Pty) Ltd.

ALG Estates owner Gerrit van der Merwe, who also serves as chairman of Western Cape Citrus Producers Forum, said demand has lead to doubling in volumes of soft citrus for his company for the 2012 season.

At Everseason (Pty) Ltd. — which represents 25 growers for packing, exporting and marketing — managing director Stiaan Engelbrecht said easy-peel varieties account for a 20% of the crop.

Taste of summer

Overall, the U.S. summer citrus market is an emerging category, and South Africa isn’t the only exporting nation looking to realize its potential there.

Other contraseasonal producers — Chile and Peru, in particular — benefit from geographic proximity to the U.S. and being able to ship weekly to the East and West coasts.

Australia figures in as well, although labor costs and access to water are issues there, Mouton said.

“There’s enough citrus in the world. It’s for us to differentiate ourselves,” he said.

Other growing regions aren’t the only competition.

Summertime in the U.S. gives shoppers plenty of options for their fruit-buying dollars — stone fruit, grapes and melons, to name a few.

“The biggest competition is other fruit,” van der Merwe said.

Mouton said consistent supplies must ensure fruit is on the shelf the whole time.

“The shelf should never go empty,” he said, adding that if it does, “You’re dead.”

Party in the USA

During my stay in South Africa from June 2-9 — spending most of my time meeting with growers and packers in Citrusdal but also enjoying an evening in the pretty college town of Stellenbosch and spending some time in the cosmopolitan Capetown area — I heard numerous times how high a bar the U.S. places for entry to the marketplace.

South African growers take pride earmarking their best fruit for the U.S. and meeting U.S. Department of Agriculture phytosanitary standards.

Of course, financial considerations are a big part of that, as Everseason’s Engelbrecht said, “The U.S. is a premium market. There’s more money in the U.S. than anywhere.”

Piet Smit, director of Favourite Fresh Export and one of the founding members of the citrus forum, said he takes particular pride in his role in building up the Western Cape as a citrus supplier to the U.S.

“I have a soft spot in my heart for the American market,” he said.

While far from synonymous with citrus in the mind of most U.S. consumers, South Africa is the second-biggest citrus exporter in the world and the largest in the Southern Hemisphere.

Although they send plenty of smaller, less cosmetically attractive product to the domestic market, the Middle East, Russia and elsewhere, exporters made it clear they enjoy rising to the challenge the U.S. citrus market presents.

“If you do the U.S. right, you can go anywhere in the world,” Mouton said.

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