Uruguay's blueberry industry on fragile ground
Uruguay's blueberry industry has been through rough times with a near halving of hectares devoted to growing the fruit and a slump in export prices. Fruit and Vegetable Producers and Exporters Union (UPEFRUY) president Horacio Ozer, spoke to www.freshfruitportal.com about the industry's prospects.
Ozer says while farmland devoted to growing blueberries has dropped from 850 hectares in 2009 to just 450 today, yields per hectare are up.
"Those with the worst productivity left the industry. Uruguay's quality of blueberries is very good and this has earned us market share."
However, Urguay has not fulfilled its blueberry potential in Ozer's opinion because those who entered the industry were entrepreneurs rather than experienced growers.
"The weakness of the sector in Uruguay was that many companies that started in the business were not farmers, or from the fruit industry, and they had to pay a lot of dues.
"Too many of them went in with inadequate scale, high fixed costs and insufficient land with soils not suitable for growing."
Coupled with this there were significant changes in the country's marcoeconomic situation, making it as expensive to produce fruit as in neighboring Argentina.
"Our crop is at least 50-70% more expensive to produce than in Chile," laments Ozer.
The problem is further compounded by varieties and a climate that makes crop-growing less concentrated.
A key opportunity for Uruguay is it can produce fruit at a time when there's a gap in the market, with harvesting starting in October and finishing in December.
In addition to this, it also has a logistical advantage for exports to Europe.
Limited access to labor is an issue along with competition from rival South American countries, such as Peru and Mexico.
At the moment, financial rewards for entering the industry are not good with export prices significantly lower this year than in the past.
Currrently freight on board (FOB) prices per kilogram are just US$5.50 compared with US$10 back in 2006 and 2007.
The biggest investment for those entering the sector is to cultivate blueberries to a sufficiently high standard. Ozer stresses it's important to know which varieties will adapt well to Urguan soil and yield high productivity.
He adds diversification of varieties is crucial for a sustainable future industry.
"How many people are willing to wait and invest? That is the question," ask Ozer.
Related stories: Opinion: looking to the future of machine harvesting blueberries
Changes at play for Argentine and Uruguayan blueberries
Uruguayan blueberry crisis needs tech injection