Americans have gotten so accustomed to seeing a wide variety of citrus choices in supermarkets in summer that it seems positively bizarre to see the lull we’re in right now. It won’t last — a “perfect storm” of events is responsible for the shortage, but help is on the way, most notably in the form of the season’s latest shipment from South Africa, which will unload in south Jersey July 17-18.
“In any other year we would be drowning in fruit right now, but this year is a perfect storm of issues,” said Casey Ison, Director of Sales for AMC North America, one of the primary partners in a consortium that together brings African citrus to U.S. shores under the “Summer Citrus from South Africa” banner.
The South African season got off to a late start then had a significant fruit drop in the early going. “Chile’s had a ton of rain, about a month’s worth so they’re later than they thought and they were supposed to start early. Peru’s down, they’ve had a lot of rain. It’s been a perfect storm not to mention the domestic season ended early so there s huge gap where demand is high and supply is low. So it’s become a dog-eat-dog world.”
The good news is another shipment of South African navels is due in New Jersey’s Holt Terminal any day now and scheduled to be offloaded July 17-18.
“It looks like next week is the light at the end of the tunnel,” Ison says. “I’m very hopeful that we’re going to see some reprieve next week.”
“We’ve got a big boat working Monday and Tuesday — that will start some of the relief. They’re planning on really being done with Navels by the end of August. Arrivals of Midknights will start the end of September – we’ll have a good period to clean up and get the fruit out and do some back to school promotions and go into Midknights for October.”
Some growers lost 30%-40% of early season Navels to dropping and splitting. Factor in that the season started early and “I think we’re going to see an early finish and a little gap before the Midknights come in, which is not too big a problem because Chile’s coming in.”
Over the past few seasons, South African citrus has gotten a toehold at retail, due in large part to a flavor profile that consumers like and heavy promotion from the program.
“South Africa is doing a good job promoting the flavor and internal quality, it is superior to the Chilean. It does not look as pretty on the outside but it’s better on the inside. There are still inroads to be made because I don’t think the average consumer knows where citrus comes from in the summer, much less that there’s a difference between the two.”
Each summer, several South African growers come over to meet and greet and do tastings at retail. And the program is “making progress doing promotions, getting in front of the retailers and explaining the fruit is better quality and they’re going to get repeat business.”
This year consumers will see the Summer Citrus from South Africa logo on packaging “so that’s good to start to build brand recognition and awareness of where the fruit’s coming from and a lot more interaction with retailers, which is always beneficial.”
The South African marketing wall is being built a brick at a time. With Americans getting to know the fruit, the program wants them to know more about the people behind it.
“There’s a huge story to be told and we don’t tell the stories enough about production and farming in Africa,” Ison says. “I read something that says when Africa learns to feed themselves they’re going to feed the world and that’s true. The opportunity and ability to grow in Africa is just huge. Where else should we be focusing our dollars right now than investing in Africa?”
“We have a looming problem of being able to feed the population in 2050 and that’s not far away. It’s an exciting time and there’s a great story to be told about the South African growers. They’re in the communities, they have schools on their farms to educate the children of the workers, they sponsor kids to go to college and bring them back so the younger kids have mentors in their lives who’ve gone through school. That story needs to be exposed more.”
The South Africans are also savvy and courteous business partners.
“They are careful with the volume they bring into the U.S. They’re aware of the market and they don’t want to flood it and overextend their welcome, they know when the season starts and when it ends and they come in a nice time frame to complement the domestic season –it’s always a nice filler in the summer months.”