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As foreign production increases: Fresh berry prices due change if trends hold

Changes in acreage and volume of fresh blueberries, raspberries and blackberries in traditional offshore production areas, combined with growing early season production from California, could signal changes in fresh berry price trends.

Discussions with Chilean and Argentine exporters as part of the recent Produce Marketing Association annual convention and recent magazine articles suggest that growing acreage and volume of raspberries, blackberries and blueberries are already affecting the price structure during the winter season.

Production of blueberries in South America is anticipated to grow by 40 percent this season as new plantings begin to produce, and those plantings should double production in each of the next three years. Chile, long a supplier of winter berries, is actively promoting the different small fruits in response to growing acreage of fruit in Chile, neighboring Argentina, and Mexico.

Chile ships 40 percent of its winter fruit volume to U.S. markets and the rest to Europe and Asia. In the berry arena, Chile has concentrated on fresh raspberries but also has significant acreage of blackberries and blueberries. Chilean blueberry sales in the U.S. grew 70 percent during the 2004 season.

Concern over growing acreage of blueberries in Argentina, and significant volume of blackberries and raspberries in Mexico has stimulated U.S. importers to try to move the growing volume of fruit in larger size containers. Off season berries are routinely marketed in clamshells weighing 4 to 6 ounces with growers seeking the 4.4 ounce package when supplies are light and wholesalers demanding a 6 ounce (or larger) package when volumes are high.

Chile has an experienced export association that works on behalf of the berry industry (and other exporters) to promote Chilean fruit and anticipate these types of potential problems.

In a typical year, Chilean blueberry production starts in October and rises slowly to peak in December and January.

Argentina growers

Growers in Argentina saw a market niche and established new blueberry plantings that are coming off starting in late September and peaking in November and December. Argentina's blueberry volume is also expected to increase by 40 percent this season and to continue increasing markedly in the next 2-3 years.

In the 2004-2005 shipping season, importers are estimating totals of about 2.5 million pounds from Argentina, and about 20 million pounds from Chile. Importers also report that demand is up however, so they hope to maintain prices for the winter blueberries that traditionally run $18-$36 per flat of 12 4.4 ounce. Clam shells. There is nevertheless pressure on the market from the growing volume of blueberries, with marketers preferring to move the fruit in larger packages — 12 to 16 ounces for example — as a way to successfully market the greater fruit volume. Growers, happy with the traditional high-value price structure for winter berries, are resisting these changes, but they may be forced to accommodate these new packages or risk not being able to sell all of their fruit. Similar situations are occurring with raspberries and blackberries as a result of growing production acreage in Mexico.

Mexico first started shipping — mainly blackberries and some raspberries — in the late 1990s when Guatemalan shippers were dropped from U.S. importers' lists because of contaminated fruit. While Mexican blackberries have traditionally occupied an earlier market window than Chilean fruit, Mexico has recently expanded its market presence for blackberries.

Mexican gains

Mexican growers are increasing the planted acreage of raspberries as they learn to grow them, and experimental blueberry plantings are also being established in Mexico. Fresher fruit and lower shipping costs would be the primary attractions for Mexican fruit over Chilean. Transport costs from Mexico are one-fourth to one-fifth the costs from Chile, and the fruit from Mexico has an additional one to two days of shelf-life.

Chile is still the dominant supplier for winter season berry markets primarily due to their volume and experience, so change in shipping trends to new suppliers will be slow. Chilean growers, seeing the market advantages that Mexico has for transportation costs and shelf-life, have already begun investigating joint ventures to produce berries in Mexico.

So what effects will these factors have on California small fruit production? Clearly, there is growing volume of small fruit in the marketplace more of the year and demand is growing and will continue to grow. Chile and Argentina and other southern hemisphere producers are pretty much out of the market when the first open field California blueberries, raspberries, or blackberries hit the market in mid — to late spring. Thus, we see prices for fresh blueberries peaking in mid-April.

Coastal California blueberry production comes off between February and June depending on location and variety. Florida blueberry production begins in mid-April, and San Joaquin Valley production begins in late April and early May.

There are relatively modest supplies of raspberries and blackberries from California tunneled production throughout the winter months, and the market will continue to pay a premium for this fruit based on freshness and quality. Similarly, there should continue to be a price premium for domestic and locally grown berries of all types for tunnel grown or open field California production.

Still, there will likely be a downward trend in price even for off season domestic fruit. Blackberries and raspberries can and do enter the U.S. from Mexico during March to June market windows, and these volumes should continue to grow. These increasing volumes put more downward pressure on early season and off-season prices for California fresh fruit. If Mexico successfully adapts low-chill blueberry varieties to Mexican growing conditions, look for similar trends with blueberries.

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