California dominates US grape production and the Golden State has carved out a niche for itself in the UK with a unique offer for buyers in a broad marketing window. Produce Business UK finds out more.
Trade with the UK is long established although newer sources such as Peru and Brazil have been carving out their own niche during the autumn, and European growers have been extending their season, to provide competition since the turn of the century.
Susan Day, commission vice president of international marketing at the California Table Grape Commission explains how Californians view the UK market: “The UK imports table grapes from approximately 20+ countries each year, consequently it is a highly competitive grape market. There is strong year-round demand for high-quality table grapes by the British consumer. Despite the increasingly competitive situation, over the past 10 years California grape exports to the UK have increased. In the 10 years prior to 2014 exports to the UK averaged 6,074 but in 2014, exports to the UK were higher than the average at 7,342t.” In fact 2014 saw a new record set in terms of crop value at $1.76 billion (£1.15bn).
An important development in trade between the two countries on grapes has been the introduction of black Californian varieties for export to the UK over the past decade to complement traditional sendings of seedless red and white varieties. The state has now become an important source of black types in the autumn/winter window in the UK.
However, there is still much potential for the UK to develop in importance for the Californians as it does not yet rank near the top of the export-destination table for senders from the state. “The top five export markets in order are Canada, Mexico, China/Hong Kong, the Philippines and Australia,” explains Day. “In the UK market, the major competitor is the large European crop during the California grape season. Other competition comes from Mexico in California’s early season availability and Brazil and Peru in late in California’s season.”
And there are stand-out qualities that Day believes set California apart from other sources. “California is the category leader in variety development and quality, consistent quality,” she says. “California also strives to have all three colours of grapes, red, green and black seeded and seedless, for its entire season from May into January.”
Exports from the state are certainly on an upward curve. Day explains that typically 40% of the crop is exported and 2013 and 2014 have been the largest two years for exports ever; in 2014 110million 19-lb boxes were exported worldwide to more than 65 markets. “And this season there is continued and increasing demand for California grapes from export markets.”
One of the best-known Californian grape companies is Sun World, which started out 39 years ago as a packer and marketer. Since then it has grown to become a breeder and grower of its own branded varieties of grapes and stonefruit, which it licenses out to growers around the world.
“Because Sun World is committed to naturally breeding the highest quality produce, we’ve established an innovative Research and Variety Development Programme to improve the flavour and overall quality of our offerings,” says a spokesperson. “We’ve also developed early and late season varieties that extend seasonal availability, meaning there are more opportunities to enjoy seedless grapes throughout the year… we’ve introduced many important patented commercial varieties to the world, and today Sun World varieties are grown on over 23,000 acres across six continents.”
Such stalwarts as Thompson Seedless and Superior Seedless® in white grapes, Flame Seedless and Sonora Seedless in red and Autumn Royal and Midnight Beauty® in black all hail from the Sun World stable.
Facts and figures
Some 99% of all table grapes grown in the US come from the state of California. Divided into two main production regions – the Coachella Valley and the San Joaquin Valley – the western state produces some 860,000 tonnes of red, green and black varieties. In fact there are more than 80 different varieties coming on stream during a season that runs from May to January.
The 475-odd growers in California support, and are supported by, CTGC which is a state-government corporation. Growers pay an assessment on each box of fruit to the commission and CTGC provides backing in five main areas; research, trade management, issue management, education and outreach, and advertising.
Growers vary widely in size, but many are still multi-generational, family-owned operations.