The State of Western Table Grapes: Chile & Peru season recap
The Americas are a global powerhouse for table grape export. Every year, from California’s San Joaquin Valley to the Valparaiso region of Chile, more than 1.3 million tons of grapes are grown, packaged, and shipped to customers around the world.
However, over the past few seasons, Western table grape producers have had to weather turbulent industry conditions, marked by COVID logistics hangovers, climate events, labor constraints, continued shifts in consumer preferences, and intensifying intercontinental competition. Despite these challenges, experts are optimistic about the industry's prospects for 2023, viewing it as a year of strategic course correction.
In this two-article series, the Hazel team provides a top-line analysis of four key table grape industry leaders across the Americas -- Chile and Peru in South America, and Mexico and the United States in North America. The articles will highlight each country's performance in the previous year, as well as provide a review or forecast for the 2023 season.
Part 1: South America
The 2020/21 season was considered by many Chilean growers as “one of the worst” in recent memory, marred by chronic drought, then heavy, damaging rains. The crop that was eventually harvested faced an uncertain journey to export markets due to continued port congestion.
2021/22 was a rebound year. According to the USDA’s June 2022 Fresh Apples, Grapes, and Pears: World Markets and Trade report, Chile’s 2021/22 table grape production was up to approximately 765,000 tons (an increase of 100,000 tons or 13.1% compared to 2021), while exports jumped to 580,000 tons (an increase of 50,000tons or 8.6%) due to the production increase.
Despite the improved production and export figures, Chilean growers still faced several other commercial headwinds that challenged their profitability. On the demand side, traditional varieties such as Thompson, Red Globe, and Crimson, which constituted the majority of Chilean exports, continue to decrease in popularity in the United States, the growers biggest export market. These demand issues were compounded by supply obstacles, which took the form of transport/shipping woes, fumigation requirements, and heightened competition from Peru and Mexico, resulting in more frequent and costly rejections for Chilean table grape exporters.
While a commitment to “varietal renewal” has been a goal for the past 10 years among the fragmented network of Chilean table grape growers, the 2021/22 season brought a new sense of collective urgency. It had become undeniable that Chile’s slow adoption ofmore pest-resistant, quality, and in-demand varieties was causing it to lag. The country had to move faster to embrace innovative breeds that reduced risk and improved profitability.
Expectations for 2022/23
Impact of “varietal renewal”
As planned, Chilean grape growers in 2022/23 continued uprooting many of their traditional vines and planting new, “hot,” varietals like Allison and Sweet Celebration, resulting in a 25% production decline of traditional varieties compared to the previous season. This transition continues to greatly impact overall production and export volume.
The most recent (6th) estimate by the Table Grape Committee of the Association of FruitExporters of Chile AG (ASOEX) projected 2022/23 shipments to reach approximately 64.5 million boxes -- 13.2% lower than in the 2021/22 campaign.
Despite the decrease in export volume, the Chilean table grape industry is celebrating a successful execution of their quality improvement strategy. It reports that 54% of this year’s exports are “new varietals.”
While the industry expects even better results as this percentage ticks-up in the coming years, true profitability of Chile’s efforts will not be known for another three to four years, when the newly planted varieties reach full maturation. In the meantime, to offset their losses in production and export, some Chilean growers have extended their investment into Peru.
Economics and Environment is testing grape growers
Another important trend that became more evident from 2021/22 to 2022/23 was that producers in every growing region reduced the planting area dedicated to table grapes. While a couple stable growing seasons have offered Chilean table grape producers some respite, macro-obstacles like high labor costs, low prices, and the daunting reality of an only worsening drought are becoming too burdensome. These truths are motivating many growers to pivot away from table grapes in favor of more profitable crops or those that require less water – like citrus, cherries, and walnuts.
This year, 2023 may mark a turning point for the Chilean table grape industry as it brings more quality and less quantity to market. Late in the season, Chile is further reducing its forecasts, on account of climate-related challenges in its central region. It is unlikely that Chile will retain its position as the world’s top global table grape exporter.
Peru's table grape exports have continued to rise since 2017, making it the second largest exporter in the world. Peru’s astounding growth can be attributed to its ideal climate conditions and commitment to cultivating innovative, high-demand varieties that are higher quality, have higher yields, and fetch better prices at market.
According to the USDA’s June 2022 Fresh Apples, Grapes, and Pears: World Markets and Trade report, Peru's upward trend from the previous year continued, rising to 700,000 tons of table grape production in 2021/22. Exports rose for a fourth consecutive year, reaching 530,000 tons, representing a 13% increase of 62,000 tons.
Politics and protest cap Peruvian output
The November 2022 USDA GAIN Peru Fresh Deciduous Fruit Annual Report forecasted Peru to produce 766,000 tons of table grapes in 2022/23, a 7% increase from 2021/22. That was before the country’s civil unrest broke out a month later, catalyzed by an ongoing presidential power-struggle. The controversial series of events triggered mass protests, strikes, and blockades, primarily in Peru’s southern regions. Since Peruvian grape-producing regions are split between the smaller Piura region in the North and the larger Ica region in the South, production has not been affected equally. Ica has borne the economic brunt of the strikes, as protests reached their highest intensity during peak harvest time – resulting in fruit left unpicked and rotting on the vine. In the northern Piura region, however, less civic disturbance and more governmental intervention has resulted in a consistent production and export season. For the first time, the North will surpass its Southern counterparts in export.
Even with the political instability, a (now dated, yet consistent) January report by Association of Producers and Exporters of Table Grapes of Peru (Provid) projected table grape exports would still reach 73,000,000 boxes, an increase of 13% over the 2021/22 campaign. Despite the strikes and blockades, Peru’s overall production has boomed, as a result, it will likely rise to the position of the world’s top table grape exporter – in both value and volume.
Industry projections for coming seasons
We contacted Daniel Nash, Hazel’s Product Specialist in Peru, to learn more about the on-site, industry perspective of the season and what’s to come. He speaks with Peruvian table grape field managers weekly.
“The access to leading breeders and capital has enabled large growers throughout the country to act quickly to introduce innovative varieties. More efficient breeds and near-perfect growing conditions have accelerated the ramp-up period, allowing many growers to reach 80 to 85% of maximum production within the first year of planting new vines.”
“For these reasons, even producers in Chile, who in many cases are left sidelined by a significantly longer ramp-up period during their new varietal renewal, are investing more in Peruvian operations,” Nash added.
When asked about which new varieties are causing the most excitement in Peru, Nash replied, “of all of them, field managers believe that Autumn Crisp is the next up-and-coming green grape breed. A key attribute driving that excitement is its ability to maintain stem quality over its counterpart, Sweet Globe.”
But Nash also remarked that this ongoing, rapid growth does not come without an environmental cost. The Peruvians acknowledge that impending water challenges have the potential to cast a shadow over a bright and prosperous future. Across the Icavalley, the water table is dropping at an average rate of .6-1.5 meters per year, causing salinity levels to rise. As a result, the industry is prioritizing innovation and R&D, with a focus on large-scale water projects (which bring their own risk for domestic conflict) and engineering more resilient varietals.
Despite the recent political travails, the future continues to be bright as Peruvian table grape growers focus on creating value and volume in the coming years. While on paper, year-over-year growth seems near limitless, over-utilization of a rapidly degrading watershed poses a significant threat.
We're excited to share with you Part 2 of our analysis, which will delve into the world of North American table grape growers and the season to come.
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