Is Seasonality Past its Sell-by Date?

With most produce items now available year-round, consumers often have little understanding of this concept.

by Steven Maxwell

What is seasonality, and is it still relevant? Walk into almost any supermarket in the United States and you would fully expect to find a generous helping of strawberries, mangos or avocados, sourced from a shifting spectrum of locations — a situation almost unthinkable 30 or 40 years ago. The global produce supply chain and the concept of year-round availability have almost eliminated seasonality as a concept. But is this a development to be celebrated or mourned?

Meeting Demand

Los Angeles-based Melissa’s Produce is one of the largest suppliers of specialty produce in the U.S., focusing on grocery retail as well as supplying sporting venues – not just in southern California where the company is based, but also the New York Yankee and Mets stadiums, the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Flyers, as well as reaching retailers in all 50 states and into Canada.

“We’re a company that is known for allowing an increased availability of items, especially those that are seasonal, by importing them in from countries below the equator,” says Robert Schueller, director of public relations.

“When it’s winter here, we look to Chile and Australia to get the summer produce, such as mangos from Australia.”

Even though mangos are available on a year-round basis in the U.S. from a variety of locations, Schueller says Melissa’s prides itself on being able to source “really great summer-fresh ones” out of Australia.

Another example is lychees imported from South Africa. Typically, a May-August crop from Mexico and Southeast Asia, Schueller says the company’s ability to tap into other Southern Hemisphere sources enables them to deliver large volumes of exotics during the off-season. This, he says, has proved especially popular with chefs who are able to access products they like working with on a year-round basis.

“When you say seasonality, typically it affects fresh fruits more than vegetables, which are usually more year-round, with the exception of the likes of Fava beans, English peas, and some of the fresh mushrooms,” says Schueller. “But as we continue to be able to source in other countries where the weather and the season are available because we look below the equator, then we are able to provide that.”

New Sources

During certain seasons, Schueller says some items in particular perform well, such as cherries, which Melissa’s sources from Chile during the winter months and in more recent years, from Tasmania, Australia. “The domestic season for cherries — and this is a heavily-demanded fruit — is heavily seasonal, whether out of California or Oregon or Washington,” he says.

Typically, the domestic season starts in May and runs until late July or early August. Around 10 years ago, when the company started importing cherries from Chile, Schueller says it was able to expand its offer from December through to February.

“We took an item that was highly demanded in the U.S. and found other growing areas throughout the world with ideal conditions and extended the season from only three months 20 years ago to six months per year by importing from Chile and Australia,” he explains.

Such changes, says Schueller, begin with chefs and consumers who want availability that has little to do with the traditional concept of seasons. “I’ve been at Melissa’s for 25 years and I’ve seen so many fruits that are no longer seasonal because we are able to multi-source them from somewhere else,” he says.

Examples of this include dragon fruit, which are imported from countries including Nicaragua, Ecuador and Vietnam. This, says Schueller, enables the company to take advantage both of domestic supplies and volumes from other countries.

Closer to home is the interesting case of sweet potatoes or yams, which were once considered a seasonal item, according to Schueller, but can now be grown year-round in the U.S. “If you take potatoes as an example, we are able to provide year-round from Idaho, and now they are also doing that with sweet potatoes,” he says.
Still Relevant?

Despite this, Schueller says Melissa’s sells 70% of its sweet potatoes between September and December each year because of the ongoing perception among consumers that it is still a seasonal item.

“I think seasonality is still important to consumers, because they are able to take advantage of a lot of domestic growing on specific fruits, such as peaches and nectarines from California from May-September,” he says.

“You know during that time, the price is going to be more competitive because of the hundreds of growers that produce peaches, plums and nectarines.
“In the off-season, we do look to Chile from December through to February, which extends the season to eight out of 12 months a year.”

Another example is cherries. During the domestic season (May to July) prices run from $2.99-$3.99 a pound, sourced from around 75-100 growers on the West Coast. In contrast, air-freighted cherries from Tasmania retail at $5.99 a pound due to little competition and import costs. “These Tasmanian cherries are the best cherries I’ve ever eaten,” says Schueller. “They are pricier, but you do pay for that import taste.”

Retail Rules

Further east, Race-West is a produce importer-marketer based in Clarks Summit, PA, and The Bronx, NY, with a business of potatoes, onions, carrots and sweet potatoes. Although these items are not seasonal, President and Chief Executive Harris Cutler says Race-West sources produce during the seasons from farms in different parts of the country.

However, he also says such practices have not necessarily been driven by the industry. “In the course of my almost five decades in the business, I have seen the power transfer from the dealers and the growers to retail,” says Cutler. “Retail runs the industry now. Retail has determined that produce should always be in season, and we have product coming from all over the world to make that happen.”

Another company with a significant East Coast presence — although it also has offices spread across the length and breadth of the U.S. — is Seven Seas Fruit. Bill Weyland, Seven Seas’ New Jersey-based vice president of sales, says with 12-month production across the world now ensuring year-round supplies of almost all produce items, the “seasonality-strategy that many took 10-15 years ago has diminished considerably.”

“There are a handful of products that still have some seasonality to them, but that list is getting shorter and shorter,” he says. “One of the few exceptions is cherries, but other than that, there’s no more seasonality.”

Weyland says few consumers these days understand the significance of seasonality as a concept, noting that there is little evidence of the uniqueness of seasonal produce continuing to be marketed by grocery retailers. “There used to be more of an emphasis placed on those products when they’d be on the shelf for six-eight weeks, and there’d be some marketing messaging, and I really don’t see that today,” he says.

With most, if not all, products being available almost 52 weeks a year, Weyland says the days when retailers would give over display space to promote seasonal fruits and vegetables appear to be long gone. “I think many retailers see produce now as an everyday item like dairy,” he says.

However, Weyland says that more information needs to be shared with consumers about seasonality that is not being passed on. “There is a tremendous amount of commitment from overseas suppliers to bring good quality products to the U.S. market when we’re currently not producing, and I don’t think consumers really understand the country of origin or the logistical challenges in bringing that product to market,” he says.

One such challenge that is having an impact both at a commercial and the retail level is inflation, which Weyland says has affected sales country-wide. “Inflation definitely is impacting the consumption and marketability of fresh fruits now,” he says. “We’re seeing across the board, across the country tonnage is down. We are seeing consumers buying less, and maybe consumers are taking a pass on products like cherries and blueberries because they can’t afford to buy them.”

Border Outlook

Further south, Raquel Espinoza, the director of sales and marketing at Nogales, AZ-based importer Produce House, is largely in agreement. “Inflation is having a huge impact, and no one is really talking about it,” she notes. “I represent growers in Mexico, and we have to deal with salaries going up — what a wonderful thing for the Mexican laborer — but there are also other costs that are going up: all of the materials and fuel are a lot more expensive.”

The danger, she says, is that inflation will put growers out of business, not just in Mexico, but in the U.S. as well. “If we do not come up with some kind of balance, then produce is going to get really expensive,” she notes.

However, when it comes to the topic of seasonality, Espinoza leans towards the positive viewpoint. Produce House sources tomatoes, cucumbers, chili peppers and a full range of melons from the northern states of Mexico including Sinaloa and Sonora, but Espinoza says having other sources available is viewed as a strength rather than a problem.

“I am pro our U.S. growers, but I am also pro growers in general,” she says. “We have options, and there is no reason why one particular crop should be left in one particular region, especially when we have the capacity to be able to fill gaps and provide consumers with what they want.”

While Espinoza says there is a lot of confusion about what seasonality means at the consumer level, she says there is no such issue at the industry level. A bigger factor, she argues, is the weather. “I think we have maintained the same amount of availability: neither more nor less than last year, we depend on Mother Nature and the weather,” she says.

Seasonal Changes

In Rio Rico, AZ, Ciruli Brothers is perhaps best known for mangos but also supplies a wide range of other fruits, vegetables and nuts. Chief Operating Officer Chris Ciruli says that some 20 years ago, his company was effectively a seasonal operator working out of Nogales, AZ. “We would offer our customers crops in the wintertime when we were harvesting and when we weren’t harvesting, we would offer them nothing,” he recalls. “Those days are totally gone now.”

Like many others in the industry now, Ciruli Brothers now focuses on fulfilling buyer needs year-round, sourcing from multiple locations month by month. “Consumers are attuned to having strawberries and blueberries available 365 days a year, as well as avocados, and that’s just the global market that we live in,” says Ciruli. “People go to the store, they expect dragon fruit to be there — they don’t care where it comes from. And most of the product is there all the time, whether it be dragon fruit or green beans or tomatoes.”

Talking to consumers directly, Ciruli says he is frequently amazed about how little awareness there is of the supply chain and the sheer amount of produce that is moved by ocean freight.

“The general population doesn’t really understand where a blueberry or a strawberry comes from, they just want it to taste the same every time they pick it up off the shelf,” he says. “I would tell you that a wintertime orange has a different thickness in its rind to a summertime orange, but people don’t understand the difference of how that happens.”

On the other hand, in a category such as table grapes where varietal changes are constantly evolving, Ciruli laughs that at times it can be hard for produce professionals to keep up with the changes, never mind the end consumer. “Consumers just know that it is a green or red or black grape, and it tastes good,” he says.

“Certainly, there are pockets in the U.S. of seasonality that supply great quality tree fruit for six-eight weeks a year, but that’s not going to supply U.S. demand for 52 weeks. And it’s a matter of trying to work that into other supplies.”

One example where Ciruli says seasonality is still evident is in U.S.-based Hispanic chains, which often promote regional produce during certain seasons to align with customer preferences. “There’s an item out there called a mini cuke or a Persian pickle – twenty years ago that was a specialty item sold to an ethnic customer base in Los Angeles, now it’s being grown in Canada, Mexico and the U.S., and it’s in almost every grocery store you walk into now,” he notes. “If you asked my wife, she wouldn’t know its origin, she just knows that it tastes great and works great in dipping sauces.”