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Although current year is lighter, Western Fresh volume is trending upward

The 2013 California kiwifruit crop “looks to be down from last year, probably about 10 to 15 percent,” both for the company and for the industry, Chris Kragie, deciduous fruit manager at Madera, CA-based Western Fresh Marketing, said in an interview with The Produce News Sept. 13.

01-Kiwi-WesternFresh-Chris-Chris KragieWith Chile and New Zealand — which ship kiwifruit to the United States contraseasonally to California production — both having shorter than normal crops this year, “pricing is probably going to start at some of the highest pricing that I have seen in my 19 years of being in the kiwi industry,” Kragie said.

The Italian crop, which coincides with the California crop, appears also to be on the lighter side, “which means that the market should stay pretty good. I think that the market will stay between $13 and $16 at the low end for the majority of the season,” based on a nine-kilo volume-fill container, which should bring some fairly good returns to growers, he said.

Even though Western Fresh will mirror the industry in having a lighter crop this year than in 2012, the company’s volume over the past several years has been trending upward, Kragie said. “We are still where we were five years ago in the sense of the quantity of fruit available.” This year, Western Fresh expects to ship “somewhere around 1.2 million and 1.13 million seven-pound tray equivalents,” whereas five years ago, “we were less than a million tray equivalents.”

The growth is a result of “our young plantings now coming to full maturity” and also because of “increased acreage that our packing cooperatives have picked up” as well as new plantings that the co-ops’ growers have coming into production, he said.

“We have many growers” for whom Western Fresh packs, Kragie said. “Then we have two very large packing cooperatives” for whom Western Fresh does the marketing. “We get probably between 50 and 60 percent of their fruit.” It is all packed under “Western Fresh” labels.

The growers whose fruit Western Fresh sells are located throughout the California kiwifruit-growing area, from Bakersfield at the southern end “all the way to Gridley” in the north, Kragie said.

“The great thing that has happened for Western Fresh over the last two years,” he said, “is we have seen a major increase in support from Costco. Three California seasons ago, we were not selling Costco kiwi. Last year was our first year,” and from then through this year’s Chilean season, “we have seen a 150-percent increase” in kiwifruit sales to Costco. He expects that is “just going to continue to increase.”

Western Fresh packs a special four-pound clamshell for Costco with six clams per master container, Kragie said. “They have been very supportive of us, and we are very appreciative of it.”

Western Fresh puts up an array of pack styles for various customers. “One thing that Western Fresh does probably the best out of all the kiwi marketers of California is we put together a lot of special packs,” he said. “We do clams, bags, single layer trays, volume fills.” In the clamshell category, the company packs “an abundance of different types of clams. We pack a 6x4, a 6x3, an 8x2, an 18x1 pound.”

Western Fresh does “a lot of foodservice and a lot of chain store packs,” he said. “We are willing to go out there and spend the money and invest in packaging even if it is for a very small customer.” Sometimes that investment has not been recovered, “but overall we are continuing to ship good kiwi to good chain store accounts, and that is what is important to us — to have a year-round program with these chain stores.”

The fruit size profile of the 2013 crop is smaller than last year, which sized larger than normal, Kragie noted. Last year, the crop peaked on sizes 30, 27 or 25, depending on the orchard. “This year, we are down probably two or three sizes.” He expects sizes for Western Fresh to peak on 33, “which is right in line with our needs.” For the industry as a whole, “I think it is going to lean more toward 36,” he said.