Southern Pride

Whether its grapes from Chile, asparagus from Peru or mangos from Ecuador, many South American countries help keep U.S. food retailers’ shelves, boxes, barrels and bins stocked with produce year-round.

One of the leading importers from South America is Chile, which, according to the Sonoma, Calif.-based Chilean Fresh Fruit Association, ships more than 75 different types of fruits to the U.S. While Chile’s primary growing season is contra-seasonal to California’s, Tom Tjerandsen, the association’s managing director for North America, says there are now a surprising number of items that are being shipped year-round.

“Ten years ago Chile basically concentrated the vast majority of its shipments between mid-December and mid-May,” says Tjerandsen. “Now with the rapid increase in the market development for other items, Chile is basically shipping year-round.”

Tjerandsen estimates that Chile ships roughly 125 million boxes of fruit to the U.S. each year, of which almost half are grapes. Other popular imports from Chile include blueberries (11 million boxes), avocados (seven million boxes), apples (six million boxes) and nectarines (four million boxes). Chilean imports also go beyond standard fare and include some fairly esoteric fruits such as red currants, cherimoya and Lucuma.

Because it would be too difficult to promote each individual fruit category, the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association employs a generic campaign emphasizing that while it is winter in the U.S., there is fresh fruit available in Chile, where it is summer. “If we started to fragment the program into supporting upwards of 75 items it would be pretty easy to get confused and lost,” says Tjerandsen. “So what we do is hold up the big umbrella and let the all the different products participate.”

Some commodity growers in Chile have been extremely proactive in promoting product. For example, though blueberry sales continue to increase, most of the movement occurs during the summer months. Chilean growers say one of the barriers to higher sales during their growing season (U.S. winter) is that consumers don’t know enough about how to integrate blueberries into dishes traditionally served during the winter months.

To remedy the problem, Chilean growers—who each year pay a checkoff fee which the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) collects and then turns over to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council (USHBC)—offered to pay additional funds to the USHBC, with the understanding that the funds be used only during the Chilean growing season.

“That checkoff funding for imports is mixed into the total spending for the blueberry industry in the U.S.,” says Tjerandsen. “They have been pretty successful informing people of the health benefits and the reasons to buy and use blueberries, but virtually the entire program has been devoted to supporting blueberries in the summer months.”

The USHBC agreed to only use the additional funds during the winter months and for the past two seasons’ Chilean blueberry growers have made a voluntary contribution of $100,000 per season to the USHBC. Chilean blueberry growers say the additional funds have been so beneficial that this year they decided to increase the contribution by $350,000, up to $450,000.

Many of the growers also rely on commodity specific commissions to do much of the promotion, such as Delano, Calif.-based Pandol Bros. Inc., which has been growing table grapes in Chile for nearly 30 years.

“As far as consumer support, most is done at the industry level,” says John Pandol, director of special projects. “We have co-op deals, California growers have their commission that does the bulk of the merchandising push and Chilean growers have their counterpart with their products.”  

Beyond grapes, Pandol Bros. also offers what officials at the company call seasonal permanent crops, such as peaches and apples. “Seasonal permanent are products that you can store all year,” says Pandol. “For example, we have apples in the store that were basically picked last year.” 

After a crop freeze that adversely affected the last two Chilean avocado seasons the Chilean Avocado Importers Association, based in Aptos, Calif., is anticipating a strong, healthy selling season this year. Maggie Bezart, marketing director for the Chilean Avocado Importers Association, says that as of late-September they have already shipped 123 million pounds, compared to 180 million pounds all of last year, and estimate to ship about 310 million pounds by season’s end.

The entire avocado industry continues to grow as well. Industry observers estimate that this year 1.2 billion pounds of avocados will reach the U.S. market, compared to 1 billion pounds last year and 800 million pounds five years ago. Bezart attributes the growth in Avocados to the consumer education that various associations provide.

“A lot of consumers love avocados but don’t necessarily know how to buy them,” says Bezart. “They don’t know what is ripe, what isn’t, etc. That’s why demos are so important.”

Bezart says these demos are relatively simple and along with the demos the Chilean Avocado Importers Association has developed a detailed demo kit that provides retailers with signage and information on how to serve avocados. She adds that a favorite way to serve avocados is as a spread combined with salt and lime juice.

“Many people don’t like avocados because they have either tried them in the processed form or tried them in guacamole and not cared for all the other flavors that are part of the guacamole,” says Bezart. “When they have an avocado by itself, with just a little hint of salt they find it has a rich buttery flavor that they are not accustomed to.”

Beyond demonstrations Bezart says the Chilean Avocado Importers Association has created a widespread outreach campaign for the 2009-2010 season which includes television, radio, Internet and billboard consumer advertising as well as an extensive public relations campaign designed to boost consumer awareness and consumption of Hass avocados during the Chilean season, while also reinforcing Chile’s reputation with retailers as a dependable source of high-quality avocados.   

One program that Bezart says has gotten a lot of retailer participation is the “Grab some for the Game” retail display contest. Grocers can order one or all of several display themes, which are available throughout the selling season. Consumers can join the “Chilean Avocados Lovers Club” and enter the “So Good, So Many Ways Random Drawing.”

Running through Feb. 15, each participating supermarket will have 12 total winning consumers, with the top prize being a $250 grocery gift card. In addition to supporting the contest with retail display materials that include a ripening bag that has information on how to store and ripen avocados on one side along with information on how to join the Chilean Avocado Lovers Club sweepstakes on the other, the Chilean Avocado Imports Association will help promote the club and contest with a media relations campaign in surrounding areas, including an extensive consumer education program.

Onions growers are also prevalent in South America, particularly sweet onions. To provide retailers with a year-round supply, Shuman Produce has been importing sweet onions from Peru for nearly 12 years. According to John Shuman, president of Vidalia, Ga.-based Shuman Produce, the area in which they import from is extremely rich, producing onions, olives, asparagus and grapes, among other crops.

“We are primarily sweet onions, however,” says Shuman. “Being such a strong player in Vidalia, we have found that Peru, at least right now, has the best quality product available during the fall and winter months and consumers accept Peruvian products. They see Peru in a positive light and have a positive connotation of Peruvian products.”

The Oso Sweet Co., based in Waterford, Mich., has been growing its onions in Chile for about 20 years and because of their success they have been able to expand into Peru as well. President Brian Kastick says the cool nights and warm days that make Chile an excellent climate for growing grapes also bode well for onions.

Kastick says sweet onions always harvest in the spring as they are genetically predispositioned to grow during the shorter days of the year. That means the Chilean product is harvested later in the year from Oso Sweet’s Peruvian product, whose harvest starts in August and runs through September because of Peru’s proximity to the equator.

“One of the values of having imported produce is the ability to offer product all-year long,” says Kastick. “It opens up the availability to market year-round with these programs. Each new season, whether it’s a Chilean Oso Sweet onion or Peruvian, it gives the retailer a new chance to freshen up their displays, run new ads or a new promotion—really use the sweet onion category as a corner stone of the produce department.”      

Oso Sweet promotes its onions under the Oso Sweet brand, which Kastick says is the second most recognizable label in sweet onions to Vidalia. He adds that the company spends millions of dollars on promotion and has over one billion documented consumer impressions on television, print and web advertising for the brand. For retailers, Kastick says Oso Sweet provides high-quality in-store POP materials that can be used to build displays and market our onions to consumers. 

New citrus from Chile
In May, 2009 the USDA approved a new protocol allowing for importation to the U.S. of sweet oranges and grapefruits from Chile. Industry observers say the inaugural season has been welcomed by the industry and has thus far been deemed successful.

Through Oct. 6, according to the USDA, more than 22,000 tons of fresh navels have been shipped to the U.S. from Chile. Combined with more than 31,000 tons of Clementines (which is up 600% from last year), nearly 15,000 tons of lemons and about 2,500 tons of tangerines, making the summer of 2009 the most prolific season ever for Chilean citrus exports to the U.S.        

Ronald Bown, chairman of the Chilean Association of Exporters attributes much of the success to the patience and strength of the grower organizations in Chile, who held off on early season shipments, waiting for maturity and brix to reach levels that the U.S. market has come to expect.

“You are only new once,” says Bown. “We stressed to the growers and exporters to avoid negative first impressions of early season fruit.”

The Chilean citrus season runs year-round, offering lemons and Clementines from May through mid-September, oranges from July through October, Mandarins from August through October and grapefruit from late-September through mid-March. 

“Chile has once again filled a domestic supply gap with reliable, high-quality fruit shipped via a world-class supply chain,” says Tom Tjerandsen, managing director for North America for the Sonoma, Calif.-based Chilean Fresh Fruit Association.

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