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Total Chilean fruit imports should top 2018-19 figures

While imports of Chilean grapes are expected to be down slightly, a significant increase in blueberry shipments and more cherry volume should equate to more fruit from that South American country landing on U.S. shores this winter season.Delicious Grapes POS hires-1

Karen Brux, managing director of the U.S.-based office of the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association, noted that “grapes are by far the largest Chilean fruit export to the U.S. They represent nearly 40 percent of all the Chilean fruit shipped here. The grape industry expects a slight decrease in export volumes due to the ongoing drought. Official estimates for the 2019-20 season are 1.6 percent lower than last season.”

It is estimated that about 78.5 million boxes will be sent to the U.S. market this year, which, if realized, would mean only about 1.3 million less than the previous year. Blueberries, cherries and the stone fruits should make up that difference giving U.S. retailers plenty of opportunities to promote Chilean fruit over the next four to five months.

Brux said there is a change occurring on the grape front as “importers, retailers and consumers are demanding better tasting fruit, and the industry is responding. There is an ongoing shift from less popular varieties to some newer ones that are in higher demand.”

For example, in 2017-18 there were 6.2 million boxes of Flame Seedless exported to the United States, while last season (2018-19) that volume dropped to 2.1 million boxes. Flame Seedless has been an industry standard for decades but Brux said importers have clearly communicated that this variety has lost favor. “On the other hand, varieties in stronger demand, like Timco and Allison, experienced strong growth,” she said. “Timco volume grew by 61 percent and Allison by 72 percent.”

This same trend is evident in U.S. production where the top green and red variety have shown significant drops in volume over the last five years. Thompson Seedless has all but disappeared. Flame Seedless is still being produced in marketable numbers but there are many varieties in the ground battling for Flame’s market slot.

Chilean grape shipments began at the end of December and are expected to steadily increase through January and last into May. “Promotions for Chilean grapes will start in February, with March and April being the main promotion months,” according to Brux.

Cherries from Chile have been in the U.S. marketplace for a couple of months with shipments continuing and increasing through January. Brux revealed that the vast majority of Chilean cherries are exported to China. Promotions in the U.S. started in mid-December and will continue through the end of January. “We’re promoting through our social media channels, and are also working with media dietitians on five-minute TV segments across the U.S.,” Brux added. “Our retail promotions are primarily in-store demos.”

Chilean fruit companies are projecting that they will export about 42 million five kilogram cartons this year, which will represent a 16 percent increase over last season.

The blueberry, especially the organic blueberry, is a growth crop for Chile this year. “Volumes shipped through Week 49 have reached 18,211 tons, 5 percent more than the same time last year,” she said. “We’re seeing fabulous year-on-year growth in organic blueberry volumes, with 3,400 tons exported through Week 49. This represents 84 percent growth over last season.”

Of the total volume of blueberries exported from Chile, North America has received about 60 percent of the total. On the organic end, the demand in North America is unquenchable as 96 percent of organic exports have ended up in this market. Brux said about 30 percent of Chilean blueberry exports are certified organic. She added that Chilean fresh blueberry exports are expected to grow by about 4 percent during the 2019-20 season led by organics.  

“Organic is a huge growth opportunity for the Chilean blueberry industry,” Brux said. “Sales of organic fresh produce advanced 8.6 percent to $5.6 billion last year, according to data from the Organic Produce Network and Nielsen. In 2018, fresh produce accounted for 26 percent total store organic sales and 43 percent of total produce growth occurred from organic items. Among fresh produce items, blueberries saw the highest growth, with dollar sales up 33.3 percent (for the year).”

Though stone fruits as a category do not account for even 10 percent of Chilean fruit exports to the United States, the sector does offer some opportunities for the U.S. buyer community during the early part of the calendar year. “Retailers should be on the lookout for many new varieties of sweet, juicy, flavorful stone fruit, whether peaches, plums or nectarines,” Brux said. “The industry has made tremendous advances over the past few years, and there’s some great fruit arriving into this market.  It really brightens up the produce department during the winter.”

She added that an expansive in-store stone fruit demo program will be launched in late January with a major national retail chain, with the biggest promotional push for the category occurring in February.

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