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Tom Tjerandsen, managing director of the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association, North America, in Santiago, Chile, who works from Sonoma, CA, told The Produce News that Chile exported approximately 900,000 tons of fruit to North America in the past year.

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Chilean cherries. (Photo courtesy of the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association)

"Of that, about 416,000 tons were in grapes, 106,000 tons in apples, 60,000 tons in blueberries and 57,000 tons in avocados," he said. "The figures then trail off with other items, including lemons and clementines. In total, Chile ships about 75 fruit categories to the U.S. and is the primary contributor to the North American fruit market today."

Mother Nature, he added, has been kind to Chilean fruit growers so far this year. Growing areas received a requisite number of chill hours and substantial mid-winter moisture, which refilled reservoirs that were dry as a result of the prior three years of drought.

"The first fruit out of the box from Chile is cherries," said Mr. Tjerandsen. "At the New York Produce Show exhibition day on November 8, I saw the first of the cherries from two importers at their booths. It made quite a buzz at the show."

Cherry shipments from Chile last year totaled over 20,000 tons, he added, which was double the figure from the previous year.

"It looks like we'll have substantial increases on top of that figure this year," he said. "Following cherries, apricots -- the first of the stone fruits from Chile -- will start moving. Then, depending on if growers get sufficiently warm days for a few weeks, we'll see a rapid increase in the volume of blueberries. We're looking at about a 20 percent increase in blueberry volumes this year, which is attributed to the growing insatiable demand for the item."

Mr. Tjerandsen noted that blueberries are one of the more recent additions to the 12-month seamless supply arena of fresh produce. Like grapes, they are produced in strategic areas in the world to prevent supply gaps and keep up with today's demand.

"This is particularly beneficial for foodservice operations today," he said. "Operators can add blueberry dishes to their permanent menus without fear of not having them for periods of time throughout the year.

"The serendipitous edge to this is that during periods of shorter supplies, retailers now have to compete with foodservice operators," Mr. Tjerandsen continued. "This has been pretty startling for retailers, who have always felt that they have control over their products."

Chile has gained nearly worldwide acceptance as a major and dependable fruit producing and exporting country. Mr. Tjerandsen pointed out that the still relatively weak U.S. dollar forces North American importers to compete with other international markets.

"But Chile has long-term relationships with receivers in North America," he noted. "And growers in Chile value those relationships strongly."

Chilean exporters are, Mr. Tjerandsen said, tremendously efficient at growing, handling and exporting their crops.

"We have a lot to learn from their high levels of efficiency," he said.

"Most Chilean fruit that enters North America is destined for the U.S., but a small volume is shipped directly to Canada. Most of the Chilean product that ends up in Canada is trucked from importers in the U.S.

"Statistics show that hundreds of tons of grapes and stone fruit from Chile make their way to Canada," Mr. Tjerandsen continued. "But it's faster and cheaper to bring the product into the U.S. and then ship it to Canada."

The Chilean Fresh Fruit Association collaborates with exporters in Chile in its ProChile program. Funded by the Chilean government, it is an aggressive promotion effort to help find homes for fruits when they travel north.