'Tis the season, which means it’s Cushman’s HoneyBells time. The lights and decorations come out, my wife discovers my latest hiding place for her John Denver Christmas CD and The Kansas City Star (and I assume newspapers around the country) runs full-page, A-section ads for Cushman’s HoneyBells.

Mail-order fruit is not the norm

Andy Nelson
Markets Editor

I haven’t tried a Cushman’s HoneyBell, a tangelo citrus variety that bills itself as “the world’s only limited edition fruit.”
I find it interesting the way they’re marketed. Mainstream media ads, mail-order delivery, a guaranteed price ($29.99 for two dozen). It’s like fruitcake. Very un-fresh-produce-like.

The HoneyBells emphasize, by contrast, just how unpredictable the rest of the produce industry really is. This holiday season, it seems, has been particularly volatile for some commodities.

Near the top of the list I would put import blueberries.

Blue Christmas?

Before the season started, a new marketing organization was created to promote Chilean blueberries in the U.S.
Around the same time, blueberry shippers around the world were talking about creating a similar organization with a worldwide scope.

The Chilean group said its goal was to increase shipments from Chile to the U.S. by 30% in 2009-10. Given the explosive demand for blueberries in recent years, driven by a steady, seemingly unending stream of good nutrition news, it did not seem like an outlandish prediction.

That was then. Now, thanks to cold, wet weather, the Chilean blueberry crop may have to struggle just to equal last year’s volumes. The starting date of the deal has been pushed back twice — both times by weeks.

The new date for the beginning of significant volume shipments could be closer to mid-January.

Unlike the Cushman’s HoneyBells, alas, the Chilean blues won’t be cashing in on holiday pull.

As bad as it is in Chile, Argentina could be even worse off, especially considering the potential long-term ramifications for the blueberry deal in that country.

Argentina is now expected to export about 8,000 or 9,000 tons of blueberries this season, down from preseason projections of 12,000 to 15,000.

Tight credit

One grower and importer I talked to called it one of the worst winters in Argentinean history. But Mother Nature wasn’t the only thing growers have had to contend with.

Because of the worldwide economic crunch, many growers have had trouble securing the credit to hire pickers for this year’s crop.

As a result, some blueberry operations in Argentina have been simply abandoned, the grower/importer said.

Of the 300 or so growers in the country, he estimates that as many as 40% of them will wind up going out of business.

Volatility — it’s one of the defining characteristics of the fresh produce industry.

And, as it turns out, not even the ol’ reliable Cushman’s HoneyBell is immune.

At the very bottom of that full-page newspaper ad is a tiny disclaimer: “The good folks at the USDA tell us that for right now we can’t ship our Florida-grown fruit to CA, TX, LA & AZ. So we arranged with grower friends outside of Florida to send our gifts with their fine fruit.”

E-mail anelson@thepacker.com

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