Range of weather factors hit Peruvian pomegranate crop
With the Peruvian Wonderful-variety pomegranate running late and Europe in short supply with high demand, the U.S. market will have to wait a bit longer than expected for imports from California-based Ruby Fresh.
Domestic sales manager David Anthony was initially planning to start Ruby Fresh's inaugural Peruvian import campaign in February, but weather conditions conspired against grower partner Agro Victoria.
"With Peru they’ve had inclement weather and the overall fruit set was smaller than expected...pomegranates don’t like a frost when there’s a blossom out, nor does any tree fruit for that matter," he told Fresh Fruit Portal.
"And they also need about 500 chill hours, so that means we want the tree during its dormancy period to be below 45°F for 500 hours, which is roughly 30 days.
"We didn’t get all those chill hours but we did have some frost, so it’s sort of the worst of those two situations."
This has meant the trees haven't been so full of pomegranates as they would normally be, and additionally Agro Victoria has suffered as a result of the rainfall and mudslides (known as 'huaicos') that have gripped the country in recent months.
"During one of the recent rainfalls a river formed right through the middle of their pomegranate orchard. It was very dramatic," Anthony said.
"It was probably three to five meters deep and maybe 10 meters across, and the water was flowing very rapidly. And after the water left, there was this large trench that cut right through the middle of their orchard and did destroy some pomegranate trees.
"It was a big swath of their orchard damaged by this flash flood."
The company's harvests are underway though and Anthony expected exports would arrive in continental Europe and the U.K. in about 25 days.
"We have some good demand right now from the European markets as well as Canada and Asia, and honestly we are so busy we haven’t approached the U.S. market yet," he said.
"Right now we are being very conservative – the whole trade with the U.S. market requires special boxes, it has to come through one port and it has to be irradiated, and then from that one port which is located in the state of Mississippi (Gulfport), it has to go by truck to the final destination."
For worldwide exports from Peru, the company was originally planning 250 containers this year but has now cut that estimate down to 175-180. In terms of the first season in the U.S. market, estimates have gone down from 20 to between six and eight containers.
"So our approach would be a very small footprint," he said.
He said the first U.S.-bound exports probably wouldn't leave port until about two weeks from now.
"But I wouldn’t expect anything to arrive into the U.S., at least from Agro Victoria, until the first part of May.
"We’ve got firm, bona fide orders in Europe, Canada and Asia, and these are established clients that have firm pricing and so anything we’re bringing into the U.S. market will be a test-type pattern."
The irradiation requirements for the fruit in Gulfport mean Ruby Fresh does not intend to process the Peruvian pomegranate arils as it does with some of its Californian fruit and some Argentine fruit imported for trial purposes last year.
"We’d have to bring the aril grade fruit through the port of Mississippi and then truck it to California where our aril plant is, and then process it. We haven’t figured out a way to do that yet," he said.
"What we're doing at Ruby Fresh is actually bringing full containers of pomegranates up from Argentina to California, and as it travels under a cold treatment protocol we’re able to enter a West Coast port," he said.
"We take the whole pomegranates to our facility, you extract the arils and you have excellent shelf life."
Last year's trials with Argentine pomegranates involved eight loads - a figure that is set to rise to 30 this year.
"It was very successful last year. The fruit was fantastic, of the Wonderful variety, really dark red arils, really good flavor, high sugar, and everywhere we went with it the reception was as positive as when we ship our Californian fruit in October for the USA market," he said.
"Argentina will start harvesting their Wonderful variety pomegranates out of the San Clemente region starting in the last week of March and then the first two weeks of April.
"We’ll get the whole crop off, get it into containers, up towards California, and then once we get the fruit in, then we can hold the fruit easily for 60 days, and then process the arils as they come in."
Some of the Argentine fruit will also be sold whole on the market, and likely competing against Peruvian pomegranates.
"It’ll also be interesting to see how the U.S. market adapts to the two varieties of fruit, because you’ve got beautiful Peruvian fruit that does have to be irradiated, and you’ve got the Argentinean fruit – also a very nice piece of fruit – that’s able to enter the market under cold treatment," he said.
The view from Europe
According to Arturo Hoffmann of Netherlands-based importer Origin Fruit Direct, lower diurnal temperature swings - meaning the difference between day and night temperatures - have led to problems with pomegranate coloring in some parts of Peru.
As a result, he echoed Anthony's belief there would be delays.
"I would say the main issue now is that the color is taking longer to be there, hence as a grower you need to wait to start the harvest," he said.
"So for all those orchards - that should be harvesting now - there are color problems. I think the fruit is going to be ready within the next three weeks, and if you add the transit time you’re already in week 17 and peak arrivals of the season will start then."
In terms of impacts from rains, he said they might have some impact on fruit condition on arrival, but emphasized they wouldn't prevent exports per se as the pomegranate was a "strong fruit".
The company has been importing the earlier varieties of Peruvian pomegranates since week 7, leading to higher accumulated volumes year-on-year but strong demand has taken those stocks out of rotation already.
"It was very limited and mainly by air with early varieties, and we have been receiving more significant volumes throughout the past six weeks.
"During the past six weeks the market has also been supplied by the last part of the Turkish season, mainly Wonderfuls, and Indian Bagwa.
"But the market has been, let’s say, in short supply in the past six weeks. So in the beginning of the Peruvian season for the early varieties has been pretty good with prices anywhere between €12 up to €14 (per 3.8kg carton) for FOT (Free on Truck) Rotterdam ."
Even though temperature conditions have led to delays, Hoffman said it was worth noting the sector had witnessed exponential growth with new plantings increasing their volumes each season, so any comparison was not exactly like-for-like.
"I think Peru will at least do the same [volume] as they did last year," he said.
"In normal conditions we should expect an increase on the volumes, not as significant as the past years, but definitely with an increase due to more yields per hectare as an effect of projects getting into full production."