By Jennifer Strailey for Progressive Grocer September 2015
South America is a diverse continent, rich in microclimates and soil that are ideal for the cultivation of flavorful fresh fruits and vegetables. With growing seasons that complement gaps in U.S. production, demand for fresh produce from South American countries continues to swell.
Among the leading suppliers of fruits and vegetables to the United States, six South American countries — Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil and Colombia — are in the top 15, according to the congressional report “The U.S. Trade Situation for Fruit and Vegetable Products,” by Renée Johnson, a specialist in agricultural policy.
Chile, our most significant South American supplier, is tied for third with China, accounting for an 8 percent share of total import value of fruits and vegetables to the United States. Only Mexico and Canada provide our country with more produce.
While the nation’s appetite for fresh fruits and vegetables year-round is driving imports, advancements and increased efficiencies in the global supply chain are creating more opportunities to meet demand.
Colombia and Ecuador
As a leading importer of bananas, plantains and pineapples, Coral Gables, Fla.-based Turbana attributes 82 percent of its business to South American imports, specifically from Colombia and Ecuador.
“Since our inception in 1970, Turbana has invested in social and economic projects within our growing regions,” says Marion Tabard, director of marketing. “Over the years, we have continued to adapt our operational efficiencies to fit the growing demand of our business, which has led to an increase in imports from these regions.”
Tabard further notes that an increase in more consistent weekly sailings of South American shipping lines has also allowed for an increase in imports from these countries.
The largest importer of plantains and one of the largest importers of bananas to North America, Turbana notes that its best-sellers from South America are bananas, pineapples and plantains.
“These tropical fruits fit into the larger, more recent culinary trends — fusion cuisine and healthy eating habits,” observes Tabard. “Shoppers are eager to infuse exotic flavors into their dishes. For instance, by incorporating our plantains into a Hispanic-inspired dish, customers are able to experience a unique, flavorful twist, while also receiving their daily dose of vitamin A and potassium.”
This October, Turbana will participate in the Marine Corps Marathon (MCM), located in the Washington, D.C., area, as the event’s official banana sponsor and composting partner. “Since 2012, we’ve fueled MCM runners with 30,000 bananas yearly through our Powered by the Peel initiative,” notes Tabard.
The second-largest country in South America, Argentina is well known for its fertile soil and diverse growing conditions that permit the cultivation of a wide variety of agricultural products. According to the U.S. Trade Office, U.S. imports of agricultural products from Argentina totaled $1.8 billion in 2013, with wine, beer, and fruit and vegetable juices representing the lion’s share.
Argentina is also becoming an increasingly important supplier of blueberries to the United States. While Chile is responsible for the majority of our fresh blueberries from the Southern Hemisphere, Argentina is No. 2, notes the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, in Folsom, Calif.
Wish Farms, a Plant City, Fla.-based grower, shipper and year-round supplier of strawberries and blueberries, recently revealed that its upcoming Argentina blueberry program is projected to double in volume over last season. The company expects to see the first significant volume of blueberries out of Argentina during the first week of October, with supplies continuing through November. The timing will segue perfectly into what Wish Farms anticipates will be another strong season for Chilean blueberries.
“Our blueberry team continues to focus on steady, controlled growth,” notes Wish Farms Director of Blueberry Operations Teddy Koukoulis. “This season, our new partnership with a significant grower helps solidify our Argentina program and stabilize volume for our customers.”
Wish Farms estimates it will market nearly 1.5 million pounds of Argentinean blueberries this year. To protect the crops from rain, which can negatively affect the Argentine blueberry harvest, many of the blueberries will be grown under hoops or tunnels that provide protection from inclement weather.
Ask Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Los Angeles-based specialty supplier Melissa’s Produce, what’s hot and trending in South American produce, and “Brazil,” is the first thing he says. From Tommy Atkins Mangoes (from August to November) to Strawberry Papayas (year-round), Brazil is an increasing source of tropical fruit imports for Melissa’s.
When it comes to papayas in particular, our nations are well matched, as Brazil is one of the world’s leading exporters of papayas, while the United States is the world’s No. 1 importer of them.
The Produce Marketing Association (PMA) has its finger on the pulse of Brazilian produce. Last month, the Newark, Del.-based organization held its second annual Brazil Fresh Connections event in Sao Paulo.
“The full spectrum of the fresh produce industry attends — suppliers, growers, wholesalers and supe markets,” asserts Nancy Tucker, PMA’s VP of global business development. “For now, we focus primarily on fresh fruits and vegetables,” she continues, noting that PMA hopes to expand the event to include floral.
Brazil is currently the No. 3 global producer of fresh fruit, according to PMA. In addition to the fruits mentioned earlier, the country is a significant producer of oranges, bananas, apples, grapes and pineapples.
While Brazilian orange and apple production are forecasting declines, tropical fruit production is increasing. However, in the first 10-year forecast for the country’s fruit production, Brazilian authorities predicted a significant increase in production for six fruit crops: melons (39.3 percent), apples (31.2 percent), grapes (21.1 percent), papayas (12.6 percent), mangoes (25.9 percent) and bananas (9.1 percent).
“Peru is really evolving as a player, with quality and volume in both U.S. and European markets,” asserts Xavier Equihua, president and CEO of the Peruvian Avocado Commission (PAC), in Washington, D.C. “In the last 10 years, we’ve seen the transformation of Peru from a small exporter of fruits and vegetables to one of the largest exporters of superfoods to the world.”
Avocados, blueberries, pomegranates and more are cultivated in Peru’s ideal growing conditions.
“Peru is often called a natural greenhouse,” notes Equihua. “It’s blessed with incredible growing conditions, and water sourced from the Andes Mountains is a key ingredient.”
This year marked the third season of the Monumental Avocados from Peru campaign. In the past three years, avocado exports from Peru to the United States have tripled, from 50 million to 150 million pounds. What’s more, Peruvian avocados are only available Stateside for three months of the year.
“It’s amazing how well the fruit is doing,” says Equihua. “There were weeks [this summer] that Peruvian avocados commanded a higher price than any other imported fruit. It was a first for the category.”
As part of the Monumental campaign, PAC worked with 2,600 Walmart stores during the month of July to conduct demos of Peruvian avocados. Additional promotions were held at Ahold USA and Wakefern Food Corp. stores. Additionally, radio spots were aired in more than 50 markets.
“The radio spots were very unique in that the 30-second spots incorporated the name of the retailer from the start,” observes Equihua. “It worked very well.”
PAC is currently offering a 145-page online cookbook for grocers. “We’re offering it to retailers who want to link to the cookbook on their websites or through Facebook,” notes Equihua.
Beyond avocados, Peru exports blueberries and grapes to the United States, and Equihua hopes to add pomegranates to the list next year. “Peru will have a wonderful window in the fall for blueberries at their peak,” he explains, adding that the country is in the process of planting more hectares of the fruit.
“Peru is also an emerging giant on grapes, and doesn’t compete with U.S. production,” says Equihua. “When people think of grapes, they think of California and Chile, but Peru has been substantially increasing production.”
As the southernmost country in the world, Chile boasts long harvests that contribute to flavorful fruit. According to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, U.S. imports of fresh fruit from Chile total $1.6 billion. Grapes account for nearly half of the import volume, while apples, avocados, berries and stone fruit round out the majority of the remaining volume.
This year marked the first year that Chilean clementines were imported into the United States. The clementines were available May through August, and were followed by late-season mandarins (W. Murcotts), which became available last month. Supplies are expected to continue through October.
“Shoppers are eager to infuse exotic flavors into their dishes.”
—Marion Tabard, Turbana
“Peru is really evolving as a player, with quality and volume in both U.S. and European markets.”
—Xavier Equihua, Peruvian Avocado Commission
Link to online version here.