The tough reality of Chile's fresh raspberry sector
Chile used to export around 2 million cartons of fresh raspberries each year, but in 2011 shipments stood at just 220,000 cartons. Part of this comes from a shift to frozen product to avoid quality issues over long voyages, but there are other disincentives such as a lack of new varieties or stimulus for renewal through new policies. At www.freshfruitportal.com we speak with Natural Choice commercial manager Esteban Labra, who explains the tough reality the sector is facing.
Chile currently has just three exporters of fresh raspberries, and the largest of them is Natural Choice.
"We had a program of 200,000 cartons this season and I think we'll be lucky if we reach 100,000," says Labra.
He describes the Chilean industry as 'complicated', with very few players left as large companies have stopped investing in the fruit, leaving many growers 'hanging'.
"At one point the large busiensses put their investments in blueberries and left the raspberry business," he says, adding that the majority of these businesses have raspberry plantations in Mexico.
Orchard renewal and new varieties
Labra emphasizes the problem in Chile is that raspberry policies have not gone in the right direction. They have focused on valuable issues like best agricultural practices, certification, financing and safety, but have left out the main problem - quality.
He says orchard renewal and new varieties are key in achieving quality, but the main variety in Chile is still the Heritage raspberry. The problem has reached such a severe point that some frozen processing businesses won't accept the fruit due to its small size, poor quality and low capacity for long trips.
"Today all the growers have their certifications with things well-organized, putting in all their efforts, but in reality the fruit is no good.
"Efforts have been poorly directed - they have done things that are necessary, but the foundation is having good fruit. Why take fruit from a very nice and ordered field if no one buys it. That doesn't help anyone.
"It is an industry that needs a stimulus."
He adds the strong Chilean peso has worsened the crisis.
"Today we are selling at a very attractive price in the U.S. that suits the growers, but it would be much more productive if the exchange rate were a bit more stable."
Competition and market windows
Among Chile's raspberry competitors, Labra mentions Mexico's industry has a higher productive capacity and more importantly, new varieties.
"Mexico produces raspberries including during the month of January, a period when Chile has a window with a good price, but this year it hasn't," he says.
"December is a very short season. In January there were hardly any sales.
"February has historically been the worst month for Chilean raspberry growers because of volumes from Mexico and California, so they are almost left with a window of just March and April, and for us to arrive in these months, and for us to be able to arrive in those months it has to be through a re-pruning."
He says Chile does not have varieties that can arrive late through a second flowering.
"Now there are other varieties that can be introduced but for that there needs to be a policy of support, because the grower who lives with raspberries is not like the ones with blueberries. The raspberry producer has half a hectare or a quarter of a hectare, and a maximum of three hectares.
He adds that Chile's raspberries are around half the size of Mexico's, which affects consumer preference for the fruit.
"In one container of Mexican raspberries you can fit 40 berries, while in a container of Chilean raspberries you can put in 90 berries, and this is because genetically the plants are not what they were, and when the grower wants to renew their orchard they don't use new material because it is expensive, and when they have access to new plants no one assures them that with this plant they will sell the fruit either.
"Every day I speak with importers and when the critical moment comes there is nothing that can be done. I send the fruit to the client and the client sends me a photo back - you put the Mexican or Californian fruit in a container and there is no comparison.
"The growers are aware that they can't produce bigger fruit, that their plants are bad, that they can't have competitive quality."
For Labra, Chile simply needs to take advantage of the market that is left by Mexico and California, and at the moment Spain due to the effects of frosts.
"It's very difficult and I have a lot of concern about it. A few years ago growers had much better expectations. Today I don't see many expectations."
The main market for Chilean fresh raspberries is the U.S., which accounts for around 95% of shipments.
Labra says due to the fruit's quality it is very difficult for it to arrive in Europe in good condition, which is impeding the nation's ability to open up new markets.
"When one can make the most of windows the first commentary you hear is that this fruit doesn't do because it is very small, the size doesn't do, it doesn't last long, it fills with mould quickly, the fruit shells a lot or it has too many sun spots.
"Today there is little Mexican fruit. Spain had frosts, so there is no other option, you have to buy from Chile, and this opens up a window where we can sell but it's a hard time.
"I have never been a pessimist and I'm not going to be one, but unfortunately the reality is like that. If we continue in this way, next year in the best case we won't have any fresh raspberries and everything will go to frozen."