Bulk blueberry shipping a future alternative for Chile
Blueberry prices and clamshell size demand can change quickly in the U.S. market, but the country's largest Southern Hemisphere supplier has to lock in packaging three weeks in advance of arrival. At www.freshfruitportal.com we speak with Santiago-based consultant Todd Mauritz, who makes the case for the relatively nascent industry of bulk blueberry packaging, which allows for greater flexibility with marketers, but can also pose problems if there are weak links in the supply chain.
Blueberry growers in the Chillan and Los Angeles areas of Chile's central valley perservered through some tough climatic conditions this year, sometimes with temperatures of 35°C (95°F) for days on end. Mauritz claims quality suffered as a result.
But he says overall prices for Chilean fruit were still better than last season, even though they fell as they usually do when the central valley producers came online, following a period of relative scarcity with early growers in the north.
This peak production region may have been down on normal volumes, but was able to extend harvesting through to late February with new rabbiteye varieties while the south got "hammered" by hail and rain.
All these climatic and physiological factors have an effect on prices, while consumer interest in blueberries can fluctuate from day to day.
"There was definitely more demand for fruit in the U.S. and a little less fruit out there. Prices held high, they dipped in January and then came back up," says Mauritz.
"Pints got as low as US$19.50 and as high as US$26, 18oz boxes got as low as US$25 as high as US$32, 6oz got down to US$10 and as high as US$14, and prices started to come up again from mid-February as production tapered off."
"Growers in the Chillan and Los Angeles area did very well considering the high temperatures and concentrated harvests, and a lot of people this year - as they have been for many years and are getting better at it - used the bulk packaging system."
Is bigger better?
He says exporting with clamshell packaging is still the most common option for the Chilean industry, but bulk packaging is attracting interest as an alternative due to material shortages and its potential benefits once the fruit arrives in the U.S.
"If growers didn't have the bulk alternative they would have had some problems because materials as always were tricky. As the season started orders weren't getting filled so people got pushed to the end of the line and didn’t have materials when the season started," he says.
"Bulk packaging is a counterpart for sending fruit in clamshells because when you pack your clamshell here it sits on the water for another two to three weeks - your market could totally change, for example it was a 6oz but now the market wants pints.
"It could be that the price you get for a pint is much better what you could make off the 6oz, but shoot, you’ve already got your fruit in your clamshells and you’re not going to re-pack it because that’s going to cost too much, so if it’s in bulk you have the ability to pack that day what the market is demanding."
Mauritz highlights there are a range of different bulk packaging options, which can be broadly divided between controlled atmosphere sealed bags and controlled atmosphere containers.
"There are liners that that are sealed at the top as a controlled atmosphere bag, and you can put that in a refrigerator container, and that bag regulates the amount of gas exchange, controlling the respiration, the inertia, while there are people who put their boxes on a pallet and seal the pallet with this bag.
"Then there are the people who just use normal perforated plastic bags in a box in a controlled atmopshere container - there are multiple ways to go about it.
"There’s not really one that’s a lot cheaper than the other and there’s not necessarily one that’s better than the other. It's a personal thing, a trialing thing, what works best for you."
But he does say the people who do it in a controlled atmosphere container can often do it quicker as they don't have to seal the bag, and bags don't have to be cut on arrival.
"All these technologies are necessary to send bulk fruit at one time; having bags or containers that will give you longevity on your fruit is very important, because in Chile you have to be very flexible in what you can do and where you can go.
"Things you’ve been planning for months can change very quickly."
The challenges of bulk
Mauritz says the disadvantage of bulk blueberry packaging is that you're adding another process to the fruit in the supply chain, which can have negative consequences if done poorly.
"The fruit has already had potentially three or four weeks since its been harvested – it’s a more delicate fruit which you're taking and dumping on a conveyor belt, and then it's dropped into the clamshell and can take a bit more time because you're not able to move directly from port to store.
"It all depends on the destination and who is your connection up there. Can he pack quickly? Does he have the new machines? Does he have people who are going to be delicate with the fruit? It's a difficult thing.
"There are some negatives and definitely advantages to packing in clamshells here. You go to the market with a finished product, and to the consumer if there are any defects they're not necessarily visible."
The other issue is the choice of blueberries, as Mauritz says "not every variety is do-able in a bulk system".
He highlights star, legacy, brigitta and duke as good varieties that can withstand the journey in bulk and still arrive on the other end in really good condition.
He says the system has the potential to be the dominant method for Chilean blueberry exporters in the future, but it is still early days yet.
"I definitely think bulk is going to be a very big system in the future. Material costs are cheaper, you have more time to respond to what the market is demanding, and it’s a good way to get rid of a lot of fruit, especially at the height of the season when you’re in high production and have a lot of fruit coming through your facility.
"It still doesn’t make up a great percentage of what is being exported out of Chile, but what it represents is a companion to what people are already doing, and a lot more people are investigating it.
"A lot more people are excited about it and there are more people focused on it, the technology is getting better, the bags are more available and more people are doing it."
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