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Stellar increases kiwifruit acreage, introduces new two-ounce bag

MADERA, CA — Sept. 27 was the first day for packing new-crop California-grown kiwifruit for Stellar Distributing Inc., here, from nearby company vineyards, and The Produce News was on hand to witness some of the first field bins of freshly harvested fruit emptied onto the packingline.

“We are starting about a week later than last year,” said Kurt Cappelluti, sales manager. The company has been marketing kiwifruit for many years, but “this is our third year packing.” In that time, “we have gone from doing 15,000 cases” the first season to a projected “100,000 cases” this year. Most of that is “our own” fruit, he said. But this year, the company will also be packing some growers’ fruit.

In addition, Stellar will sell another 400,000 to 500,000 cartons of growers’ fruit, he said.

This year, “we are growing a lot more of our own kiwi” than in the past, he said. “We have about an extra 54 acres this year that we didn’t have before,” making a total of about 75 acres of company-grown fruit.

In its grower deals, Stellar continues to work with the same growers as last year, all of which have essentially the same acreage as in the past. The ranches are located as far south as Bakersfield, CA, and as far north as Chico, CA.

Stellar offers its kiwifruit in a wide assortment of pack styles, including a new 12-ounce cello bag just being introduced this season.

The 12-ounce bag is similar to the 16-ounce bag the company has packed in the past and will continue to pack, but is designed to enable retailers to offer shoppers a lower price point, explained Casey Hollnagel, a salesperson with the company. “There will be some times during the year that we will be able to hit 99 cents on the shelf,” he said. “That was our target. A lot of retailers have been asking us for a 99-cent price point.”

The bag carries the “Stellar” label.

There are several other advantages to the new bag, which is packed 27 bags per box. One “good thing about the bag is it is much cheaper packaging than the clamshell, and that helps us keep the price point,” he said.

“Also, with the bags, we will put them back into the volume fill box, whereas with the clamshell we actually have to get a box that costs $1.50” to put the clamshells in, thus adding more cost, he said. Yet another advantage is that considerably more fruit goes on a pallet, thus reducing the cost of freight.

Stellar’s California kiwifruit program is just part of a year-round program. “I do kiwi 12 months out of the year,” Mr. Cappelluti said. It is “just something that [we do] every day.” There are times when supplies are a little lighter than others, but “we just never stop doing kiwi. It is a nice pace.”

Currently, in addition to the California kiwifruit, “I am bringing in a fair amount from Italy,” he said. The Italian fruit goes to the East Coast, and the California fruit stays mainly in the western part of the country.

Stellar also markets kiwifruit imported from Chile and New Zealand, which is contra-seasonal to the northern-hemisphere fruit. As of late September, fruit from both of those sources was still in the market. “We are still selling New Zealand and we are still selling Chilean on both coasts right now,” he said.

In its California program, Stellar will put “probably 1,500 bins” into cold storage this year for late-season marketing. That fruit will ship from around the first of February through about the first of May, overlapping the start of the 2012 Chilean season around the first of April.

“One thing we are doing right now on the California fruit” is to precondition the fruit “to make sure it ripens properly” and evenly, he said. The preconditioning assures customers of getting fruit at the desired degree of ripeness when it goes onto the store shelf.