Chilean feijoa exports return to U.S. market
Sol Fruit International owner Matias Patton is ramping up programs for niche Chilean produce items like feijoas, cherimoyas and kumquats, and is also on the lookout for partners in passionfruit.
After an absence of almost a decade, Chilean feijoas will be sold alongside the New Zealand competition thanks to the efforts of San Clemente, California-based Sol Fruit International.
The company received its first imports of the exotic fruit on April 12 in Los Angeles, and weekly airfreight shipments are expected to Los Angeles, New York and Miami.
"I've got to give credit to my friend Nick Bernal who was in Chile eight months ago and found an agronomist from the Universidad de Chile, a lady who had planted not much - about 1.5-2 hectares of feijoas - in a project a few years ago," he says, preferring to keep the grower's name confidential.
"We picked it up from there and got some boxes."
He says the farm in Hijuelas, near the avocado-growing region of Quillota north of the capital Santiago, could produce 350-400 boxes of feijoas per week for a period of six to eight weeks. Another shipment was due to arrive in the U.S. yesterday.
"We're hoping to extend that for another four or five weeks. And if it goes well we want to help them expand and maybe do five hectares of the feijoa, and promote the Chilean feijoas with what’s offered from New Zealand," says the Chilean-American.
"The initial response was ‘when is the next one coming in’, so there’s obviously a need for it. Despite the fact we’re seeing New Zealand feijoas in the market, I look at market prices and the response has been very good.
"Right now in California there’s a niche market – the fruit is produced here locally as well. A lot of it goes to the Asian consumers, and some of it is going to wholesalers or Whole Foods types of markets.
He describes the fruit as firm, solid, fragrant, with a darker green exterior and a light color when you cut it.
Betting on cherimoyas
The feijoa deal builds on other programs for Chilean exotics, the most longstanding of which is the deal for cherimoyas, also known as 'custard apples'
"That’s something that’s been going on now for the last six years and we’ve been able to make it grow with the support of the grower in Chile from near La Serena," he says, adding the grower had around 50 hectares of production.
"Everything is airfreight from Santiago to different destinations – we do go into Los Angeles, Miami and this year we’re going to open direct flights to Houston, Texas."
He says the fruit, which is popular with the Asian and Hispanic communities but is also getting more traction with some mainstream retailers, is very perishable.
"We have maybe 8-10 days of shelf life on arrival, so fortunately we’re working with a premier grower and handler of cherimoyas in Chile, one of the few remaining honestly," he says.
"They have to go through a specific process. The protocol is kind of difficult - you have to do it in the presence of a USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) and SAG (Chile's Agriculture and Livestock Service) in Chile...it's a soapy wax treatment and then it goes through an oven."
"The USDA is in the process of reviewing comments for its final decision to readjust, to change the ruling so that process will no longer be needed – they’re going to review a systems approach to allow cherimoya into the States."
He said Chile normally only had a very limited amount of cherimoyas in June, with around 20,000 boxes coming out of Ovalle.
"That's the earliest I've seen it," he says.
"This year our grower’s going to start in June – four or five years ago he planted in a different area and they’re going to start on-line this year, and typically export quality goes to the second week of November.
"For the Chilean market it lasts for longer, I think until the end of December, but typically the quality after mid-November decreases too fast and you get three days shelf life on arrival, which isn’t enough for a program in the States."
Cumquat imports could double
Patton says one of the reasons he chose to import cherimoyas was that Chile is one of just two countries allowed to export the fruit to the U.S.; the other is the Caribbean country Granada, which has an extremely limited supply but is a supplier of soursops to Sol Fruit.
The situation is similar protocol-wise for kumquats, with only Chile and Uruguay able to export to the U.S., says Patton.
"These protocols exist because at some point somebody brought those fruit into the country - somebody did a trial," he says, adding Uruguay is not a player in the category, making it a counterseasonal Chilean deal.
This will be the third year for Sol Fruit International importing Chilean kumquats, but in truth the first season was just one pallet as in that year a Medfly outbreak led to heightened fumigation controls.
"We still wanted to try it out – in late November they cleared out the Medfly situation in the region where the fruit was being produced," he says.
"So we did one pallet to see how the fruit would behave, how the customers would react to the fruit. And they just loved it - the fruit was beautiful, good size, excellent color, sweet taste.
"So the following year I did the export to the U.S. and we ended up doing about 3,400-3,600 boxes, and this year I’d expect to bump it up to 8,000 boxes, hopefully 10,000 boxes."
He says the grower has about five hectares in the Los Andes area, but Sol Fruit would like to help increase total plantings to 10-15 hectares.
And speaking of untapped protocols, the executive adds Chile is also one of just three countries allowed to export passionfruit to the U.S.
"We’re going to do a project, it’ll probably be 15 hectares to start, with passionfruit," he says.
"I’m looking to Australia and New Zealand to select proper varieties because they are the leaders and that’s the standard we have to follow if we want to compete," he says, adding the focus will be on the purple varieties rather than the yellow 'maracuya' ones common in South America.