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"The word we get out of Chile is that the fruit is going to come. There is a lot to come" despite a slow start, said Mark Greenberg, chief operating officer and senior vice president in charge of procurement of Fisher Capespan. Mr. Greenberg works from the company's Montreal office.

Flames and white table grapes from Copiapo were as much as two weeks late prior to Christmas, Mr. Greenberg said Dec. 23. “When the harvest from Copiapo, down to Vicuna, begins, you will see a big volume arrive. There are a lot of grapes just taking their sweet time about it. In the second week of January, expect white and red table grapes begin to kick in.”

Mr. Greenberg said that the delay was “unfortunate because Christmas week it would have been nice to have them to put into the market.”

Citing U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics for all Chilean grape volume to all North American importers through week 51 of 2010, Mr. Greenberg said that Chile had shipped 700,000 packages of Flames. This was down from 1.57 million packages for the same date in 2009. Low supplies drove Flame prices in late December to the high $30s to low $40s range for 18-pound packs.

“White seedless grapes are doing a little bit better. If you look at Sugraone and Thompsons combined, 630,000 packages were shipped by the end of last week,” Mr. Greenberg said. All white Chilean grapes, excluding Perlettes, totaled 811,000 packages in the first shipping weeks of the 2010-11 deal. Last year at the same time, white grapes totaled 1.28 million.

As of week 50 of 2010, Perlettes were down only to 425,000 packages, vs. 450,000 for the same date in 2009.

Not only is Chilean grape production late this year, but “what made the grape market extremely tight is that the Brazil season ended quickly” and Brazil’s volume was lighter than expected, he said.

At the same time, “California white seedless are pretty much gone. In terms of red seedless grapes, we’ve seen some from Peru in this market, but not many. As of December 17, there were still 1.2 million Crimsons left to sell from California.” That volume was “not the most desirable — they are beginning to show their age. That is why reds today are pretty high” coming from Chile.

Overall, Mr. Greenberg said, “It could get interesting. When you start with really high prices — and you can’t blame the growers for prices for scarce commodities — that leaves an expensive inventory for retailers. The price can come down, but the retail doesn’t always move that quickly. They have to move the expensive fruit before they move it at more attractive pricing to their customers. As long as volumes rise consistently, the market should be able to react with prices offered in promotions to clients and to where chains can put them on sale and encourage people to buy table grapes. The objective is to move fruit at prices that are attractive to consumers and generate a relatively profitable return to the grower.”

Regarding pricing, Mr. Greenberg said that “the Chilean growers will be sensitive this year with good reason. The value of the Chilean peso continues to increase” vs. the U.S. dollar. This generates fewer pesos for the growers, who mostly pay their manual labor in pesos.

On Dec. 23, the exchange rate was 469 Chilean pesos to the dollar. “A year ago, the peso was at 515,” he said. In July 2010, the rate was 540. “Growers are taking a foreign exchange hit.”

Still, Mr. Greenberg said, “there is a normal flow of fruit to the U.S. The United States remains the preferred market for Chileans. The South Africans are in Europe” with wintertime fruit.”

He added, “I think the Chileans are more inclined this year to look at all markets, including Europe and emerging Eastern Europe and Asia, but now most is headed to the U.S. Chile will never short-ship the U.S.”

Emerging Asian markets especially can help Chilean fruit marketers as Asians “develop a bigger appetite for seedless grapes,” he said. “This will take off surplus fruit to the U.S. ... in weeks where the U.S. has a bigger volume than it can reasonably manage in a reasonable period of time. It is good for our market here, and it is certainly good for the Chileans to generate a more efficient distribution of their products around the world. It’s also good for Asian markets because it offers a high-quality fruit that their consumers are generating an appetite for. Chileans have a much broader view of the world, especially for seedless grapes, than they had five years ago. Traditionally, North America has been the seedless grape capital.”

The primary new Asian markets for Chile are South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

This season, Fisher Capespan will have a 20-25 percent increase in Chilean grape volume compared to a year ago. Much of the company’s strength comes from six programs with “a number of chainstores,” he said. “We put a lot of effort into six programs with chains to assure they are in grapes every week of the year in a pack they like.”

Referring generally to the upcoming deal, Mr. Greenberg said that Fisher Capespan is “looking forward to having a strong big volume of fruit in the market from Chile. We are hoping that the market can achieve reasonable prices for the Chileans and also generate reasonable prices in the shops.”