Marketers look for dried-fruit sales in Mexico
By Steve Adler
Employees sort prunes at Wilbur Packing Co. in Live Oak. Wilbur is one of many dried fruit processors that look at Mexico as a destination for increased exports.
John Friend of Wilbur Packing Co. in Live Oak says exports play a large part in the company’s sales and Mexico is being explored as a potential new market.
In an effort to bolster the sales of California dried fruit internationally, several producers and processors are looking south of the border, at both retail consumers and commercial ingredient buyers.
A trade mission put together by the Northern California and Sacramento Regional Center for International Trade Development brought dried fruit producers and processors face to face with potential buyers in three Mexican population centers—Monterrey, Guadalajara and Mexico City.
Starting with a trade booth at a food show in Guadalajara that generated at least 40 trade leads, the CITD said it determined that buyers in Mexico are very interested in dried fruit, including prunes, raisins, apricots, figs, dates and peaches, as well as dried tomatoes.
"About four years ago, we had an idea to see if we could expand the dried fruit consumer market internationally. Other segments of specialty crops, such as almonds, were looking at the international market and being pretty successful. But the easiest market to get into was down south in Mexico," CITD Director Brooks Ohlson said.
Ohlson wrote a grant that was submitted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which works closely with CITD.
"With the benefit of grant funds, we worked with various dried fruit processors—from raisins to dried plums to dried tomatoes—to assess the Mexican consumer interest in dried fruits as an alternative snack food and as a healthy snack food," Ohlson said. "Following that work, we marketed California dried fruit aggressively in Mexico, through international webinars and video conferences, trade show booth presence and a trade mission to identify and meet with Mexican buyers and importers."
The webinars were conducted prior to the trade mission to Mexico City, providing market intelligence such as Mexican consumer patterns, the modern and traditional commercial structure, and pricing and regulatory issues, Ohlson said.
Ester Gordillo, CITD international trade consultant, noted that the California producers tested several dried fruits and added other spices to them, in order to determine which dried fruits had the best opportunities to be accepted by Hispanic consumers.
"One that the public particularly liked was dried fruit that was flavored with chile and lime juice," she said. "We hired a contractor in Mexico to do the taste testing for us and it was very successful. Since we saw there was a demand for it, we moved forward with this program to help California companies market their products in Mexico. We distributed our results to dried fruit companies in California."
Among the California producers and processors who took part in the trade mission was David Miller, global accounts manager for National Raisin Co. in Fowler, the largest private label packer of dried fruit in the United States. The firm processes and markets all types of dried fruit in the U.S. and internationally.
"We saw this trip as a good opportunity to meet with potential customers as well as other industry people who are looking to do some of the same things," Miller said. "We went on this trip to look at opportunities that may exist in retail and perhaps in food service."
Miller said that in the past, his company had not paid much attention to international markets, but there has been a gradual shift beginning about three years ago.
"We are late in the game and it has been a steady process. We've just quietly moved in, targeting customers who are looking for higher-specification products," he said.
Although California raisins command a higher price in Mexico than imports from other countries such as Chile, Miller said there is a place for California raisins because of their superior quality.
"What we are identifying is that Mexico has basically been supplied as a second-tier market for countries like Chile that don't have Thompson seedless grapes, but are bringing in their form of raisins, which are basically the reject fresh table grapes that have been dried," he said. "We would be providing a true raisin rather than just a dried grape. It will be a more consistent product for them, ultimately."
John Friend of Wilbur Packing Co. in Live Oak, another trade mission participant, agreed about the potential market in Mexico for the higher-quality California dried fruits.
"Mostly they source their prunes from Chile, which is very competitive on prices, but we know that our quality is much higher," Friend said. "One of the things I learned in Mexico City is that there is definitely a market there for some higher-end product. We were in some really nice supermarkets that I think would be very conducive for promoting a higher-end California prune."
Wilbur Packing currently exports prunes to Europe and Asia, as well as the Middle East, India and Russia, but has very little activity in Central and South America.
"We haven't had many sales south of the border, and this is something that we really want to change," Friend said. He added that since the trip, he has been in ongoing conversations with Mexican buyers.
"There is one customer that looks very promising, but it is going to be a long-term project. It is a situation where it is not only the product that I am pushing; I have to try to educate the consumer in Mexico about California prunes," he said.
(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.