Fresh Perspectives

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Fresh Perspectives

In the aftermath of widespread devastation caused by one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded, our hearts go out to residents of Chile, whose agriculture officials continue to assess the potentially dire consequences on the import chain, which sends 40 percent of its total fruit exports to the United States, according to the most recent trade statistics.

The mammoth 8.8-magnitude earthquake and companion tsunami struck at peak harvest season for Chile’s fresh fruit and wine industries, which figure as two of the most important segments of the country’s overall economy. Among the hardest-hit areas was the Maule Valley, in the heartland of Chile’s wine-producing region, where many vintners have been heavily affected by the catastrophe. One of the larger wineries, Concha y Toro, has had to temporarily suspend all of its logistic and production operations for at least a week while efforts to assess the scope of the unprecedented event continue.

Members of the Chilean fresh fruit community have obviously had their hands full getting a handle on the impact of last weekend’s earthquake, particularly on production areas in the southern and central regions. After surveying conditions of the infrastructure, including internal transportation, electrical and port services, the Chilean Exporters Association (ASOEX) said that the majority of damage occurred at packing stations and cold-storage facilities in three key metro production regions, most directly affecting table grapes, apples, pears and blueberries.

Consensus among industry exporters and growers, however, is that the critical issues will be resolved within the next five working days, with a return to relative normality. ASOEX says companies are showing the expected solidarity and are working together to ensure that the industry will be back on its feet and operating normally.

Meanwhile, the Chilean government has put in place well-rehearsed plans and programs to help speed the recovery of operations. Authorities have begun to repair the highways and bridges that are crucial to the transport of fruit from the growing areas to the ports. Since last Saturday’s earthquake, most areas have remained connected through alternative routes, but there have been inevitable delays in arrival times.

As of Wednesday, Santiago Airport had begun servicing both incoming and outgoing flights from almost all major airlines for international and domestic routes, but with some key delays; it will take a few more days to return to full capacity.

The country’s main port of Valparaiso is loading from piers No. 1, 2, 3 and 6, working at 90 percent capacity, while the northern fruit port of Coquimbo is operating normally and receiving without any problem fresh fruit that has been redirected from other ports.

Chile’s second-largest port, San Antonio, is operating at 60 percent capacity through the terminal EPSA (Empresa Portuaria de San Antonio) via piers 4, 5, 6 and 7, while the STI (San Antonio Terminal Internacional S.A.) is currently lacking electrical supply. The small amounts of fruits that were destined for the port of Lirquén will have no problem being forwarded to alternative ports.

In regard to the fruit inspection sites servicing the U.S. market, all five facilities are operational and receiving fruit for inspection. “There are still some production areas as well as packing and cold-storage facilities that have either no electrical supply or that have highway infrastructure damage, but through our discussions with authorities, complete electrical supply should be restored within the next 48 hours,” said Ronald Bown, board chairman of the nonprofit ASOEX, whose members represent fresh fruit exporters that handle over 90 percent of the total volume of fresh fruit exported from Chile  “All involved in the growing, harvesting and shipping of fresh fruit in Chile are committed to holding distribution disruptions to a minimum.”

While noting that Chile is well prepared for these types of seismic events, Bown expressed his deep gratitude on behalf of ASOEX to the international fruit community for its continuing support, and emphasized that fruit growers and exporters in Chile are committed to reducing the impact of the disaster.

One such valued partner of that global community is Delano, Calif.-based Pandol Brothers, which is a sales agent for Chilean produce and a pioneer in international trade for more than 50 years. During the present peak table-grape season, company executives have been closely monitoring the situation and aren’t expecting shortages of supplies targeted for grocers. But John Pandol says there could be a small surge in prices in the next couple of weeks: normal sales prices for grapes would average roughly $.99 cents per pound, but will likely be closer to $2 to $3 a pound.