Importers greet winter fruit deal

As the memories of rainy fall weather receded, importers of Central American fruit looked forward to abundant quantities of high-volume fruit this winter.

Brooks Tropicals Inc., Homestead, Fla., ships its Caribbean Red papayas from Belize year-round, said Mary Ostlund, the company's director of marketing.

Fruit ships overland through Texas or by boat to Florida, Ostlund said.

In January, Brooks plans to add Uniq fruit from Jamaica to its winter Central American/Caribbean fruit roster.

Because of favorable weather conditions in Belize and Jamaica, Ostlund expected similiar-sized weekly shipments as last season in the coming weeks for its Caribbean Reds and Uniqs.

"Volumes are expected to be normal for both this winter," she said.

"Mother Nature has been kind to us this year. We can't complain."

Papaya shipments from Guatemala and Belize came to a screeching halt because of rainy weather for New Limeco LLC, Princeton, Fla., said Eddie Caram, general manager.

By December, however, shipments were beginning to "fall back into place," Caram said.

New Limeco expects to bring in six to eight containers per week of Central American papayas this season, up from last year, Caram said.

"We're growing more, and demand is higher," he said.

New Limeco also has increased volumes on its El Salvadorean lime program, Caram said.

For the past five or six years, volumes have been "on and off," he said.

This season, however, the company expects to bring in one or two containers every week on a consistent basis.

The quarantine of Mexican papayas because of salmonella fears this fall had a bigger effect on large papayas than smaller fruit, said Homero Levy de Barros, president of Plantation, Fla.-based HLB Tropical Food.

Markets for smaller papayas stayed relatively steady, Barros said, but some large fruit doubled in price.

"It was a big disruption in Mexico, which is responsible for more than 70% of papayas that come here," he said.

By early December, though, higher volumes of big fruit from Belize and Guatemala were restoring order to markets, Levy de Barros said.

"They had gotten $28, now it's back to $18," he said. "With higher production, prices will come back to normal."

Levy de Barros reported good quality on the papayas HLB was importing in December.

Tropical storms in Guatemala and Belize put a dent in lime supplies earlier in the season, but in December quality was good and markets strong, Levy de Barros said.

Plantation-based Fresh Quest Inc. expects to bring in cantaloupes, honeydews, seedless watermelons and canary melons from Central America this winter, said Lou Kertesz, the company's vice president of sales.

After a quiet November, Fresh Quest was enjoying better movement of melons in December, as buyers made the switch from domestic and Mexican production, Kertesz said.

"We're just coming off a quiet Thanksgiving, but business is pretty brisk today, though," Kertesz said in early December.

"The fruit in Mexico and Arizona is a little tired."

Kertesz reported good condition and very good eating quality on the melons Fresh Quest was bringing in from Guatemala in December.

Volumes from Guatemala should be steady until mid-January.

After that, however, there will likely be a gap in shipments of Central American melons to the U.S., Kertesz said.

That's because Honduras, the next production region in line after Guatemala, has turned its attention elsewhere, Kertesz said.

"Honduras is the new location for European production," he said.

"Honduras won't have enough to fill the pipeline."

On top of that, almost no Costa Rica melons now find their way to U.S. markets.

As a result, Kertesz said, there will likely be a gap from mid-January through February.

After a successful experimental run last season, Fresh Quest is ramping up production this year for its Melorange melons from Central America, Kertesz said.

The Melorange is very sweet, aromatic melon with bright orange flesh. Fresh Quest expects to bring in four or five loads per week this winter.

"We had a good trial run last year. Now we have good production this year," he said.

Fresh Quest expects to import the Melorange from late December through April, Kertesz said.

Pompano Beach, Fla.-based Southern Specialties Inc. expects to bring in mangoes, blackberries and limes from Guatemala this winter, said Charlie Eagle, the company's vice president of business development.

Southern has been bringing in berries and mangoes for years, Eagle said. Its lime program is relatively new.

Nevertheless, the company is still known primarily for its sugar snap and snow peas, French beans and other vegetables.

What a fruit program provides is convenience and savings to the company's vegetable customers, Eagle said.

"It allows them to maximize their freight," he said.