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CITRUSDAL, SOUTH AFRICA -- The season's first shipload of South African citrus sailed May 31 from Cape Town and is scheduled to arrive about June 24 on the Delaware River's Gloucester Marine Terminal in Gloucester City, NJ.

Many grower-packers throughout the Citrusdal shipping district interviewed by The Produce News May 27-29 indicated that the quality of their fruit is excellent. Several packinghouse tours verified the claims.

Piet Smit, chief executive officer of the Western Cape Citrus Producers Forum, based here, told The Produce News May 27 that Citrusdal growers had first packed clementines the week of May 18, with peak shipping to come in the next two weeks. Navels, Nova clementines and other citrus varieties also were being exported in late May.

According to Mr. Smit, South Africa has exported 40,000 tons of citrus per year for the last several years. The country began exporting to the United States in 1999, shipping 500 tons that first year.

South Africa, which ships from 11 growing areas, is the world's third-largest- volume citrus exporter, trailing only Spain and the United States. It provides 60 percent of the citrus exported from the Southern Hemisphere. Seventy percent of South Africa's citrus production is exported, and the United States receives 30 percent of that volume.

Mr. Smit said that the Western Cape forum involves 350 growers who enjoy "great soil and ideal growing conditions," adding, "The water quality is outstanding, and the climate is ideal."

Gerrit van der Merwe, chairman of the forum, said that the United States always receives the highest quality South African citrus. The U.S. market pays the best prices and therefore is the backbone to the success of this citrus region.

Generally, members of the forum export their largest citrus sizes to Europe and the smaller fruit to the Middle East, while Canada receives mid-sizes. Mr. Smit said that about 5 percent of the volume that goes to the United States is a large size (40), about 15 percent is 48s, and 65 percent is 56s and 72s.

Mr. van der Merwe said that citrus growers in South Africa's Western Cape and Northern Cape provinces export fresh citrus to the United States on 10 chartered vessels a year.

The Northern Cape growers have been exporting to the United States for four or five years and work in cooperation with the forum. "There are five or six guys that are big in clementines" in the Northern Cape, according to Mr. Smit.

The forum has operational planning committee meetings each Wednesday morning through the shipping season to discuss volume expectations in planning an efficient use of chartered vessels, which sail from Cape Town's fresh produce terminal to the Gloucester Marine Terminal in Gloucester City, NJ.

The Produce News attended the May 27 committee meeting, where 14 grower-representatives discussed a spreadsheet prepared by Mr. Smit that showed estimated volumes on different varieties, loading schedules and many more details.

The plans may change but as of late May, the last South African reefer vessel is scheduled to arrive Oct. 15 in the United States. Mr. Smit said that the Western Cape would conclude its citrus season in October.