Well-managed, flexible, vertically integrated packers and growers utilizing new technology with a commitment to strong capitalization with liquidity are the ones who will be the survivors in the rapidly changing fresh fruit and table grape industry, according to Mark Burrell, managing partner in the WestMark Group, Bakersfield, Calif.

Conversely, highly leveraged producers and packers who are slow to adapt to change face an uncertain future, Burrell told the recent Agribusiness Management Conference in Fresno.

Per capita consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables has gone up more than 20 percent in the past three decades, and California producers have responded to that growing market by increasing peach acreage by 38 percent in the past decade. Nectarines bearing acreage has jump 34 percent in that same period and table grapes acreage has increased 11.5 percent.

The only decline since 1991 has been in plums, off 10 percent because plums do not offer a good return on investment.

Other nations have responded to the demand increase as well. Table grapes and fresh fruit are now available year-round largely from southern Hemisphere imports. For example, Burrell said Chile now supplies 31 percent of the total U.S. table grape market. Mexico supplies 12 percent of the market and that evolved into a major issue recently with Coachella Valley producers who contend Mexico is dumping products on the U.S. market at their expense.

Record export gains

On the other hand, California producers are enjoying record increases in exports. Table grape volume increased 29 percent in 2000 from 1999 and stone fruit exports totaled 8.2 million cartons last season, a new record.

Mexico has replaced Hong Kong has the largest export market for California table grapes. However, Asia remains an essential export market for both table grapes and stone fruit with seven of the 10 largest export markets for table grapes.

There also are changes in consumer preferences. Since 1991 volume for the mainstay variety of the industry, Thompson seedless, has been largely flat. Emperor and Ruby Seedless have declined sharply, replaced by dramatic increases in Red Globe (132 percent) and Crimson (376 percent) over the past decade.

California fresh fruit and table grape production has undergone rapid changes over the past decade, and Burrell said that is not likely to slow down in the future.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com