Thompson killers and the road ahead for white seedless
Thompson seedless has become the quintessential eating grape in the U.S. and a highly valued crop for growers around world. But a rosy past doesn’t guarantee a bright future and a new wave of highly produced varieties have been in the works for years. Their commercial future looks bright and their mission is dramatic: Kill the Thompson.
But while saying “Thompson Killers” sounds catchy and provides a marketing pitch for breeders, growers and retailers, how close are we to a new reality for the almighty seedless Thompson grape? In this article FreshFruitPortal.com takes a look at the road ahead for the Thompson and the new generation of grape varieties nipping at its heels.
THE NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK
Breeders have been targeting late and early windows for years. Extending the harvest or shelf life a product to offer it when most of the harvest has already been consumed is a commercial opportunity that can translate into lucrative returns.
One of the leaders in doing so is Sun World International, a California-based breeder, grower and marketer of grapes and other fruit. Sun World is focusing on developing new varieties of white, red and black grapes that come to market outside of traditional time frames.
According to the company’s Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer David Marguleas, finding alternatives for the Thompson seedless is one of the opportunities on the horizon, albeit one that is not yet fully developed.
“We are starting to see now some late white seedless production that follows the traditional Thompson window that might have a modest impact ... but I think we are several years away from a bigger impact,” Marguleas told FreshFruitPortal.com.
Currently Sun World’s commercial offer of new varieties centers on early ripening white seedless like the Superior Seedless, black seedless such as Midnight Beauty and midseason white Sophia Seedless. But Marguleas expects a late white variety to have a significant impact on the market for Thompson grapes arriving from the Southern Hemisphere.
Analysts agree with Marguleas’ assessment. According to Isabel Quiroz, Executive Director and founder of fruit consultancy IQonsulting, the arrival to market of new grape varieties will start to have a strong effect on the market for Thompson in about two to three years. Growers in the north of Chile, Peru and Brazil will see a greater impact on their traditional market.
But the executive also believes that early varieties coming from the Southern Hemisphere will maintain a strong advantage over late harvested varieties in North America: freshness. Shipments from south of the equator have spent less time on the vine and will continue to represent a high quality alternative to remaining stocks or late grape varieties in the U.S.
For Marguleas the opportunity is not exclusively for North American growers. The executive believes that the late white variety opportunity is also available to Southern Hemisphere growers to provide grapes to Northern Hemisphere buyers in April and May.
However a viable commercial offer from the Southern Hemisphere is still several years away, Marguleas said.
SOUTHERN EXPORTERS WARY
For Isaac Bon, General Manager of Chilean grower Compañia Frutera Del Norte, late white varieties being developed in California are a “worry” for Southern Hemisphere exporters of both the Thompson and Flame varieties.
This is especially the case for the Autumn King. Unlike “prototype” grapes that are licensed by private companies, The Autumn King variety was patented by the USDA and is therefore more widely available for growers in California.
In the Autumn King Bon sees a formidable source of competition for the Thompson, especially since the Autumn King is known for a larger size that can practically push medium-size grapes out of the consumer’s favor.
RETAIL THE DRIVING FORCE
In the end it will be the consumer who determines the success or failure of new varieties, but the influence of retailers to frame the choices is the main driver behind the search for Thompson alternatives.
“Certainly retailers have been asking us for better and fresher alternatives to the Thompson,” Marguleas said.
Bon also sees retailers as the main factor, as they look not only for a viable alternative to the Thompson, but also the option to source grapes locally for an extended amount of time. That would create an “uncomfortable” situation for exporters in countries such as Chile, because it can come in at a lower price.
“A market supplied locally is an alternative for the retailers than translates into a lower price for Chilean fresh fruit,” Bon told FreshFruitPortal.com
IQonsulting’s Quiroz believes that the retail sector has been in need for some time now of varieties that can provide greater productivity and hold up better against factors that have deteriorated the quality of the Thompson variety.
But Quiroz also believes that new varieties are not competitors with the Thompson, but rather a newgeneration that will one day replace it. This will bring benefits to Southern Hemisphere growers as well.
Sun World’s Marguleas said that growers in both hemispheres are eager to plant crops that translate into lower costs and a better yield, as long as they have a final destination market.
For Bon there is a particular opportunity to find a Thompson alternative that has a high productivity per hectare and that is harvested even earlier. This is particularly true for Chile’s northern growers who are the first to harvest in the South American country.
NOT EVERYONE IS CONVINCED
Despite the attention on new varieties, not all who work with the fruit are convinced that the Thompson is on a decline due to new competitors.
For John Pandol, Director of Special Projects for Delano, Calif.-based Pandol Bros, there is much marketing promise behind new varieties that does not necessarily lead to retail sales benefits.
“We have no new white variety available to us that we are willing to plant more than a trial planting,” Pandol told FreshFruitPortal.com.
Furthermore Pandol questions the assertion that declines today are from the introduction of new varieties. Instead the executive points to handling decisions that could erode the feasibility of the Thompson variety at the retail level.
Holding on to the highest quality grapes until later in the season, is one example Pandol puts forward. Overuse of growth regulators in other varieties, thus changing expectations of what a grape should look like, aging Thompson vineyards and retail decisions are also factors that could be to blame, Pandol added.
When asked what factors outside the inclusion of new varieties of grapes into the market Pandol said that retail priorities are evolving and investing the time, money and patience required to display a high quality Thompson is growing more difficult.
“Does retail no longer have the time, money or trained personnel to rework bags of Thompson or white grapes?” he said.
While much of the focus of a changing market is placed on the white seedless niche, Sun World’s growing portfolio of grape varieties of all colors and harvest time frames is a testament to an evolving market for grapes.
Regardless of opinions, CFN’s Bon sees a need to approach the matter with calm and numbers in order to find where and how to best implement new varieties of grapes to improve the supply chain.
“More analysis than controversy is what we need,” Bon said.