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After two light, late years, Sonora grape season returns to 'normal' volume and timing

In the produce industry, "normal" is sometimes defined as a running average of the past three seasons. If one went by that definition, then after two unusually light and late years, the 2012 Sonora grape crop could be both early and large. But many producers and distributors involved in the Sonora grape deal taking a longer-term view see the anticipated prospects for the 2012 crop more as a return to normal.

Unless there are major weather disruptions before harvest, the crop looks to be larger and earlier than the last two years, with better promotional opportunities. There is a general consensus that there will be at least some promotional opportunities for Memorial Day weekend and many more throughout June.

To avoid ambiguity as to whether that means the crop is normal or above normal in volume and normal or earlier than normal in timing, Shaun Ricks, president of The Grape Guys in Cutler, CA, said he prefers different terminology. With regard to timing, he said, "I think we can call this a more traditional start date," with the harvest starting at about the time "we had grown accustomed to" prior to the last two years.

As for the size of the crop, Mr. Ricks said he has heard various numbers, but "from everything I am hearing from the growers we work with, I suspect that 18 million [boxes] is probably a pretty good estimate. And again, that is a more-traditional-sized crop."018-MexGrapes-CropWorkers thinning grapes in a grape vineyard in Caborca, Sonora, Mexico.

Indeed, viewpoints do vary among different people The Produce News talked to in the deal. One thing accounting for those differences is that "each guy looks at his own situation and extrapolates it," said John Pandol, chairman of the grape division of the Fresh Produce Association of The Americas and vice president of special projects for Pandol Bros.

Another reason for the differing viewpoints is the confusion between total production in Mexico and the amount of fruit that will actually cross the border. "Most of the time when we talk about crop size," he said, "we talk about the [volume] crossing into Nogales" destined for markets in the United States and Canada. "That number, over the last five years," has averaged around 15.4 million boxes. One year was in the high 16 millions, another in the low 13 millions, but that is the range.

The old adage of "40 days in the desert" seems to apply this year, he said. Although Mexican grapes will be available from the final days of April to the middle of July, traditionally, "80 percent of the Mexican grape deal is the last seven days of May, all of June, and the first three days of July." Starting the week of May 2, four to five weeks of more than 2.5 million cartons per week are anticipated, but typically there are more Mexican grapes shipped in the first two weeks of July than in the first two weeks of May.

An official crop estimate will not be available until Aril 27 at the Sonora Spring Summit in Hermosillo, but an estimated crop size for export to the United States and Canada is in the range of 15.5 million and 16 million cartons.

One thing to keep in mind is that although the United States is the largest market for Mexican grapes, Mexico does have other markets for its grapes, both domestic and overseas. Market forces in the Unites States (and opportunities elsewhere) will have as much to do with how much actually crosses into Nogales as the total crop size. A record crop on the vines would not necessarily translate into record crossings.

One way in which the Mexican grape deal has changed over the last several years is that many growers "have spread their production, mostly for operational capacity reasons, so they have some blocks they do early and some late," said John Pandol. The overall effect of that has been "to spread out the supply curve."

"This is expected to be a normal year, with good promotable volume, and a little bit earlier start than last year," said Gonzalo Avila, vice president and general manager of Malena Produce Inc. in Nogales. "That can change at any moment, but as of now, that is what it looks like. It should be a good year for grapes."

From the perspective of Jared Lane, vice president of marketing for Los Angeles-based Stevco Inc., "The overall crop in Mexico, on average, is above normal on volume for almost every variety and the timing of the crop looks to be earlier than normal." The first Perlettes should come off between April 30 and May 2, with Flames starting about May 7, he said.

In contrast to the past two years, "I see a lot more opportunity for retailers to promote red grapes," Mr. Lane added. "There has been a lot of added acres of Flames in Mexico," and flame volume could be significantly higher than last year.

There should be promotional opportunities for Flames from the last week in May through the first three weeks in June, he said, and "I think the whole month of June there will be a ton of opportunities to promote grapes," including Sugraones from mid-month on.

To Jerry Havel, director of sales and marketing for Fresh Farms in Nogales, "The crop looks like it is going to be a fairly normal size crop," although Sugraone volume "might be slightly smaller than an normal crop" because some of them got nipped by a cold snap at bud break.

Timing is a week earlier than last year, and that should allow for "some small ads, but not monster ads" for Memorial Day. "The really big ads need to come in June," he said.