Extensions to both ends of the Chilean cherry deal over recent years have helped to close the annual supply gaps in the U.S. market, which this season is said to have remained stable despite higher volumes.
A representative of Philadelphia-based importer Forever Fresh – half owned by Chilean cherry giant Agrícola Garces – said that in the past Southern Hemisphere supplies may have just lasted for a little more than a month, but now the company can provide fruit from November through March.
“Typically people think the cherry season will be from Dec. 15 until Jan. 15. Things are changing quite a bit, which is good,” general manager Evan Myers told Fresh Fruit Portal.
“Cherries are now something that retailers carry on their shelves for a good part of the year. We’ll have fruit until the middle of March, and then California starts around April or May, so the windows are getting smaller.”
In Chile, the world’s leading cherry exporter that spans a range of geographies and climates, Myers attributed the extensions to numerous factors including new technology, varieties and growing locations.
“Now people are pushing to get here at the end of October. Five years ago it was Nov. 10 for the start. And I would say that now Chilean cherries in a typical year will be here through January, whereas before the would be over by the end of the month with no promotable volumes,” he said.
Forever Fresh started receiving airfreight shipments from its Argentine supplier in mid-January. The first containers are expected to arrive into New Jersey next week, with the final consignments coming in around March 8.
2017-18 Chilean season in the U.S.
The current Chilean cherry deal got going around two and a half weeks later than the previous campaign, which meant there was little volume available for the Thanksgiving holiday in late November.
But Myers said that as normal there was plenty of activity for December and the New Year’s celebrations, adding there was retail support throughout the campaign which is still going strong.
“It’s been a stable market,” he said.
“I would say that toward the end of January there was definitely some poor quality that entered the market and made it a little unstable, but that was fruit that wouldn’t make it to most retailers.”
Chile, which typically ships in excess of 85% of its cherries to Asia, saw a huge increase in production this year, with some forecasts suggesting volumes could double year-on-year. Myers said there had indeed been greater Chilean cherry imports to the U.S. this season, but believed the market had not been too adversely affected.
“For us I would say there were no complications – I think that retail pricing was set going forward. I think it was mixed a little bit just because of the lateness of the deal, but I think most of the importers understood that retail needed to get down to move the volume,” he said.
“It went fairly well and it seems the retailers responded pretty well. There were lots of ads in place and there’s still very good retail support right now on the market.”
Chilean cherry growers enjoyed more favorable growing conditions this season than the previous year, when many struggled with high temperatures. Myers said that generally quality had been better during the current campaign, but emphasized it was important to look at specific varieties when talking about quality.
“For example, when you look at one of the early varieties, the Glen Red, last year the quality was not very good – low Brix, the color wasn’t strong, the fruit didn’t hold – this year the sizing was good, the Brix was a lot higher, color was good,” he said.
Can the U.S. absorb the future increase in Chilean volumes?
The South American country has seen a wealth of new plantings over recent years, leading many to predict that production volumes will soar in the near future.
Myers expected shipments to the U.S. to continue to increase but said the high price level relative to the domestic crop would likely be a barrier to how much fruit can be moved through the market.
“You have to look at the price points. With [the domestic] volume, retailers can go at extremely low prices – maybe US$1.99 a pound – and so the Chilean fruit is expensive by comparison. Most of the retailers that you see out there sell the Chilean fruit at US$3.99 or US$2.99 a pound, and you’re only going to be able to move a certain amount of volume at that level.
“So I think when that volume does start to get ramped up, pricing is going to have to be at a level where retailers can put a price on it that is going to be similar to a domestic-type of price so the volume can move through the system.”
Top seal packing for cherries
Taking a leaf from European retailers’ books, Myers explained that this year Forever Fresh had started selling cherries in top seal packaging, in contrast to the bags that are commonly used to sell the commodity throughout most of the U.S. He said top seal packaging was often used for the likes of tomatoes in the U.S., but not so much for fruit.
A top seal machine began operation this season at the company’s facility on the East Coast, where the majority of its volumes enter the country.
“We’ve been trying it for a couple of years in Chile and this is the first year we had actual production in the U.S. We rolled that out to a couple of select retailers and it seems to be catching on,” he said.
He said the packaging helps to improve shelf life, reduces shrinkage at store level, limits bruising, and also keeps supermarket shelves looking clean.