Every morning, Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Nogales, Arizona-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, which represents growers and importers of Mexican fruits and vegetables, eats an assortment of fresh berries as part of his breakfast.
A couple of decades ago, that would have been impossible. The difference, Jungmeyer says, is imports.
“Twenty or 25 years ago, an item like blueberries or raspberries wasn’t always in the store,” he says.
When domestic product was in season, retailers might be able to promote blueberries or raspberries four or five times a year. Now, with year-round availability thanks to production in Mexico, Chile and other countries, retailers can promote berries year-round: blueberries one week, blackberries the next, followed by raspberries and strawberries.
“That shows value to consumers and it helps retailers keep departments exciting and create pull,” he says. “Imports really opened up retailers to a world where they don’t have to plan all promotions around seasons.”
When you rely on seasonal promotions, you’re counting on Mother Nature to deliver your product at the precise time you’ve planned your ad. If it’s off by just a week, your ad won’t match up to your influx of product. “Retailers now have a lot more control,” Jungmeyer says.
In about the last quarter-century, U.S. per-capita consumption of fresh produce has grown 12 to about 21 pounds annually. That’s a big increase, Jungmeyer says, and it wouldn’t have been possible without imports.
“We’re creating expectations around consumers — this is good for helping fight disease, this could for that. With imports and year-round availability, consumers know they can have access to those items, that they can plan their lives around it.”
Other factors have driven the increase in imports, Jungmeyer says. In California, the Southeast and other U.S. growing regions, fruit and vegetable growers are having a hard time finding enough labor to harvest their crops.
Also, retail and foodservice’s need for just-in-time deliveries has led to a consolidation of buying teams and the growth in year-round guaranteed supplies.
“It takes lot of headaches away from retailers, and you can’t do it without imports.”
Chile is the main “counter-seasonal” source of fruits consumed in the U.S. In the 2018-19 season, the country shipped 92.4 million boxes of fruit, according to the Santiago-based Chilean Fresh Fruit Association.
In winter, cherries, blueberries, grapes and stone fruit are among the top exports to the U.S., says Karen Brux, the association’s U.S.-based North American marketing director.
Conversely, in the summer, when U.S. consumers can’t get citrus and kiwifruit domestically, Chile is there to meet the demand.
As big as Chile’s export deal is, the growth in competition from other exporting countries has kept Chilean grower-shippers on their toes, Brux says — a good thing for U.S. consumers.
“With multiple supply options for retailers and consumers at any time of the year, suppliers need to be ever-focused on market needs in order to remain competitive,” she says. “That means growing and shipping the varieties that the market wants. There are some exceptions but, in general, if Chile doesn’t supply what our customers want, there’s another country knocking on their door.”
As one example of how that’s affected Chile, the Chilean Blueberry Committee is eliminating nearly 40 varieties from its export program after determining they weren’t suitable for the export market.
And for grapes, Chile is rapidly eliminating older varieties that the U.S. doesn’t want, and moving into new varieties.
When it comes to marketing, Brux adds, it’s the same story.
“You need to be focused on what the market wants, as opposed to just coming up with some blanket retail campaign. We have a few standard pieces of point of sale material, but most of our retail programs are custom-designed so they can focus on what works for a particular chain.”
That could mean kids’ cooking classes, a registered dietitian program, a social media contest, digital coupon — whatever works best for that particular retailer.
New varieties, new markets
Vancouver, British Columbia-based The Oppenheimer Group is fortunate to have domestic production across a wide range of products for much of the year, says Eric Coty, the company’s executive director of South American imports.
However, he adds, the ability to also provide fresh, new crop products from the Southern Hemisphere after the domestic window closes gives retailers a distinct advantage in consumer loyalty.
“The Oppy team is proud of our long history bringing fresh produce to North America and around the world,” Coty says. “We’re able to provide year round availability of consumer favorites and fresh options during the domestic off season.”
Technology, new varieties and investment to commercialize new growing regions continue to alter the import landscape, Coty says. Massive new plantings of cherries, mandarins and new grape varieties in Chile is one major example. Another is Peru’s emergence as a big player in the blueberry, avocado and grape deals.
In the grape category alone, Oppy is importing 25 new varieties of seedless grapes from Peru, Chile, Brazil and South Africa, Coty says. The company even has plans to bring some proprietary seedless grapes from India into Canada this season.
Citrus, stone fruit, blueberries, apples, pears, cherries and mangoes are among the other fruits Oppy imports from not only South America but from as far away as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.