Many things struck me on my one and only visit to Chile a couple of years ago.

Quake reveals Chilean fruit industry's strength

Andy Nelson
Markets Editor

One, despite a geographical separation of roughly 4,000 miles, drivers in Santiago and in Mexico City share two traits: they would much rather use their horn than their brakes, and approximately 89% of them think they’re Helio Castroneves or Juan Pablo Montoya.

I learned that the pisco sour is a perfect drink, and should be consumed in moderation. I also learned that because the pisco is so ridiculously tasty, it’s ridiculously difficult to consume in moderation.

More germane to the point of my trip to Chile, I learned a lot about not only the nuts and bolts of the country’s fresh produce industry, but about the character of the people behind it.

In addition to the obvious challenges associated with shipping their perishable products to markets thousands of miles away, shippers and marketers told me they must often compete against growers in countries whose governments give them significant aid to help compete.

You would expect the end of such a story to be a complaint that the Chilean government doesn’t do more for them.
But what I heard was just the opposite. Chileans didn’t want government meddling in their business, even if that meddling took the form of a handout.

Free markets and entrepreneurial drive and creativity had built up the industry to what it was, and shippers didn’t want that formula tinkered with.

That’s what I heard then.

Now, in the past month, I’ve been hearing a different set of comments from the importers who help make sure North American consumers have enough Chile-grown grapes, peaches, plums, cherries, avocados and other fruits during the dark days of winter.

You hear a lot about American “exceptionalism” — and much of it is deserved — but, for me, a new take on this has emerged in the wake of the Feb. 27 earthquake and its aftershocks: Chilean exceptionalism.

I should have kept a tally of the number of times I’ve heard this or that importer’s version of this statement: If anyone can get back on their feet faster than anyone thought possible, it’s the Chilean fruit industry.

The earthquake knocked out a bridge on the road to Valparaiso or San Antonio? Find an alternative route.

An aftershock knocked out a bridge on that road? To quote one importer, the Chileans just find an “alternate to the alternate.”

Whatever it takes, the fruit will make it to market.

To borrow from the jargon of the global economic meltdown, the export business is too big to fail for the Chilean fruit industry.

That necessity, combined with the character of the Chilean industry, are the reasons why when you talk to importers these days, they seem so serene.

E-mail anelson@thepacker.com

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