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Early Chilean stone fruit and cherry crops damaged; many more questions remain unanswered

Even if Chilean fruit crop damage from September frosts was already quantifiable, the numbers would still not paint a clear picture of the upcoming winter fruit marketing season.

Making this observation Oct. 10 was Brad Cantwell, vice president of deciduous sales-North America for Dole Fresh Fruit Co., who is based immediately south of Philadelphia in Lester, PA.

As to estimates on crop damage, Cantwell confirmed that many different sources are offering widely varying numbers.

"There is crazy information out there now," he said. "But the jury is still out."

In talking to Chilean growers, Cantwell has found that growers within one area suffered different levels of damage to different crops. Furthermore, September frosts affected many Chilean growing areas. Overall, he believes "most growers were not hurt too badly."

But some growers are calling damage "a disaster." Grapes generally fared better than stone fruit. Early stone fruit and cherries "will definitely be affected," he said.

Cantwell said one grower told him that his kiwifruit had been affected by freeze but "there is not much damage" to his grape crop. A neighboring grower told Cantwell that he had a 60 percent grape loss.

Cantwell said his growers expect to have a better grasp on crop damage by the end of October.

One wild card involves oncoming "second bloom" fruit, which may or may not be affected in the same manner as more mature early fruit.

Cantwell emphasized that international marketing factors will ultimately have a great impact on Chilean fruit availability in the United States.

For example, he said one Chilean grower told him last year that he would have 100,000 boxes of Flames for the U.S. market. In the end, a Russian buyer canceled his firm-price business and the Flame grower had much more fruit than expected for the United States.

This scenario could be duplicated many times over in the coming winter fruit season. Like buyers in Europe, large-volume Asian buyers of Chilean fruit pay firm prices for fruit that is expected to be perfect. If those customers cancel orders for fruit showing some frost damage, U.S. importers, who receive Chilean fruit on open consignment, may be handling far more volume than might be expected now. Given this possibility, Chilean fruit volumes in the U.S. could match those of last year, he said.

Thus, Cantwell emphasized that all the discussion of various levels of Chilean production "is all speculation at this point. Everyone should just wait."

And furthermore, he noted again that because of potential volume swings to various customers around the world, ultimately "we will have to react to the moment" in Chilean fruit volume as the season unfolds.  

A source in Chile on Oct. 10 confirmed that there are many different estimates coming out of Chile. This source did not want to be identified because of the uncertain factors surrounding this topic.

But he did confirm that cherries, peaches and nectarines are most affected by the freeze, while "there is some damage to grapes and blueberries."

The source in Chile indicated that accurate statistics on Chilean fruit damage will become clearer by about Oct. 23.