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Light on front end, promotable Mexican grape volume from late May through June

by Rand Green | April 13, 2009
Official estimates for the 2009 Sonora spring grape crop, week by week and variety by variety, will be announced Friday, April 17, during the annual Sonora Spring Summit in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico. But growers and marketers of grapes from Mexico were expecting a significantly smaller crop overall than in 2008.

Total crop size for export to the United States was expected to be in the range of 10 million to 12 million boxes, vs. an unusually large export volume of about 15.5 million boxes in 2008.

However, ample supplies of fruit were expected to be available from the last week of May throughout the month of June and into the first few days of July. The shortage will be felt primarily on the front end of the deal, during the second and third week of May, which will mean limited supplies available for Memorial Day weekend. Promotable volumes should be available every week from that point to the end of the deal, without the extremely high spikes in volume that occurred last year, according to industry experts.

Juan Laborin, director general of the Sonora Grape Growers Association, said in a written statement March 16, "Many Perlette and Flame seedless vineyards have lower-than-normal bunch counts. Sugraone, Red Globe and other varieties continue shoot development, and it is too early for reliable bunch counts."

Mr. Laborin also said in the statement that 1,600 hectares (4,000 acres) of vineyards with the lowest yields and poorest quality have been removed from production since the 2008 harvest.

John Pandol, vice president of special projects for Pandol Bros. Inc. in Delano, CA, and chairman of the Sonora Spring Grape Division of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas in Nogales, AZ, told The Produce News March 28 that the acreage taken out of production constitutes about 15 percent of total grape acreage in Sonora but represent only about 5-7 percent of the volume.

Some of the vineyards were pulled out, some were converted to raisin production, and in other cases growers simply chose not to spend the money necessary to farm to the standards required for export to the United states and will market their crop domestically.

The low bunch counts -- the other component of the reduced volume -- are a result of weather issues. Growers and marketers have cited low chill hours and, in some cases, freeze damage as the primary causes.

Most affected, according to Mr. Pandol, were the "super early" vineyards in Hermosillo. Among the least affected were growers in Caborca who "as a group are closer to normal."

During peak production weeks, "we will see a flatter supply curve," Mr. Pandol said. He does not expect to see weeks of 3 million-box crossings which cause congestion at the port of entry. Instead, "we will see more like weeks of 2 million." That is still "a lot of grapes," he said.

An industry press release to the retail trade dated March 2009 stated that the "overall result" of the changes in the supply curve this year will be "a stretched-out season with no major peaks. This helps ensure a smoother deal, with less logistical-operational delays and, importantly, fresher fruit ... with greener stems."

Lighter sets are also expected to result in larger berry sizes.

One of the reasons the volume of grape imports will be down this year is "due to the economic situation and the fact that some of the average to below- average grape growers had a hard time making money last year," said Jerry Havel, director of sales and marketing at Fresh Farms in Nogales. Therefore, "a certain percentage of the grapes from Mexico will not be coming to the U.S. market basically because they haven't been farmed hard enough to make a U.S. No. 1 on arrival at the border."

That is "not a bad thing," he said, because those were "probably ... the worst grapes that were brought across the line" and were "just barely" good enough to make the grade. "So I think overall the quality of grapes coming out of Mexico this year will actually be much better than it has been in the past, overall, from an industry standpoint."

But "what is important for everybody to know is, there is still going to be a very large crop to sell," he added. "It is going to be promotable volume. There are going to be lots of opportunities to set up programs and promote."

Gonzalo Avila, vice president and general manager of Malena Produce Inc. in Nogales, said: "While there will be good volumes for promotions, ... there will be less than the last couple of years," but this "might be a good thing, because the last couple of years have been tough for table grape growers."

(For more on the Mexican grape deal, see the April 13 issue of The Produce News.)