Produce imports into the United States have been growing and now account for roughly half of the country’s total consumption.

And Latin America’s share is growing led by USMCA partner Mexico accounting for around $38 billion or over 74% of the country’s total exports to the U.S. as reported in WTO (World Trade Organization) figures. But other Latin American countries (LACs) like Chile, Peru, and Brazil are planting the seeds for a larger slice of the U.S. produce import market.

According to the USDA (United States Agricultural Department) estimates published in May, imports from South America in FY 2022 are projected to rise $2.2 billion from the February forecast to $20.1 billion. Imports from Brazil are expected to increase $900 million from the previous estimates due to greater expected sales values of coffee and beef products, while Chile (up $200 million), Colombia (up $300 million), and Peru (up $600 million) are expected to supply more agricultural products than were forecast back in the February report. The USDA expects increases in the imports of poultry, cut flowers and nursery stock, coffee, and fresh fruit from those countries to buoy the total.

The rise in LAC fruit and vegetable exports to the U.S. is attributable to a number of trends. According to “Rural Migration News Blog 203”, published in February 2021 by The University of California-Davis. “The share of imports is rising for many fruits and vegetables due to higher U.S. incomes that support a year-round demand for fresh produce, healthier eating, and freer trade with countries that export fresh fruits and vegetables.”

The Cal-Davis report notes that the top five fresh fruit imports accounted for three-fourths of the $14 billion of all US fresh fruit imports in the fiscal year 2019. This is led by $3.3 billion worth of berries, $2.7 billion in avocados, $2.2 billion worth of bananas, grapes with a value of $1.6 billion, and $800 million in pineapples.

The value of berry imports rose the fastest over the past decade, while the value of banana imports fell. As noted above, Mexico provided over half of U.S. fresh fruit imports by value in 2019, exporting fresh fruit worth over $7 billion, followed by Chile, $1.8 billion, and Guatemala and Peru, $1.2 billion each. Peru had the fastest growth in fresh fruit exports to the US, led by fresh blueberries. Peru’s volume has certainly increased since 2019.

Chile and Peru

Chile’s success in grapes and stone fruit production and exports led to extended product lines, including but by no means limited to avocados, mangoes, citrus, and berries. Success in northern Chile extended to similar production in Peru, which enjoys advantages that have made Peru the emerging young, roaring lion in the global fruit trade.

Mark Greenberg, president, Capespan North America Inc., based in Montreal, is among those marketing fruit imported from Chile and Peru.

Greenberg indicates Capespan will import Chilean table grapes and stone fruit, as always. But “We will focus on Peru in the early season. Fruit from northern Peru will arrive for the Canadian market by the second week of November.” Then, Capespan will transition to Chile and South Africa in the New Year.

Peru is Roaring

Greenberg notes, “Peru is absolutely rocking and rolling. 100 percent!” This is due to a variety of reasons. “Excellent fruit comes from a wonderful climate. The growers are big and sophisticated, and they have desirable varieties. Peru used to be known for Red Globe grapes but in the last decade, Peru has moved to seedless and propriety seedless varieties. There are ideal conditions. Rarely are there water problems for irrigation. Peru produces a first-rate product.”

Greenberg enthusiastically continued: “Everything grows in Peru. If you plant a new vineyard in northern Peru - Piura, Chiclayo - you’ll have production two years earlier than you would have from a new vineyard in Chile or California. Stuff grows well and grows fast. The product is absolutely great.

Peru’s Sweet Globe, which comes from IFG, and Autumn Crisp, from Sun World, are so good they have resurrected demand for green grapes in the U.S.”

Peruvian growers extended the length of their production seasons to batter Chile’s early and late production marketing weeks.

Peru’s coastline is a level, bone-dry, relatively narrow track between the calm, blue Pacific, and the magnificent Andes. The warm, steady climate is truly “pacific.” Melting Andes snow yields dependable irrigation water and growers can produce fruits and vegetables to meet any global demand at about any time of the year. Three major seaports, Paita, Callao, and Matarani, spread north-to-south respectively, on the long coastline, provide the perishables industry with good shipping options.

Challenges in Chile

Capespan’s Greenberg expects this winter, “Chile’s volume globally will be down, based on preliminary information from the Chilean industry. The Chileans had a difficult 2021-22 last season. This will impact the volume produced for all markets this season. I hope the season is better and has fewer logistics tie-ups and challenges.” More on logistics, below.

Among the reasons Chile has steadily lost grape trade to Peruvian vineyards is the USDA phytosanitary requirements on most of Chile’s production areas.

Evidence of a shift occurred on October 13, 2022, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) proposed a rules revision for Chilean table grape importation into the United States. If this rule change survives the comment period, which ends Dec. 16, fresh grapes produced in many Chilean regions will no longer have to endure methyl bromide fumigation. Other, less damaging practices will suit phytosanitary inspectors and thus Chile will overcome a substantial competitive disadvantage with Peru.

Other Latin American Producers

Argentine and Brazilian growers enjoy geographic, cultural, and trade ties with European buyers. But these countries are also regular suppliers to the U.S.

Brazil is a major supplier of mangos, grapes, and other fresh products for the U.S.

Argentine lemons are currently heavily shipped to the U.S. Over the years, that trade has been influenced by whims - that may go beyond phytosanitary science - in the U.S.

Argentina and Uruguay are among the many strong suppliers of blueberries in North America.

Colombia, of course, is a major banana provider. Colombian avocado exports are increasing. Air-freighted flowers have long been established in the U.S. market.