The task of making blueberry consumers 'come back in droves'
Having progressed from its status as a 'denture stainer' in the 1980s, the blueberry has become one of North America's most sought-after fruits. Counterseasonal supply from Chile and Argentina has been key to that success but the high return windows these countries have enjoyed are tightening. Oregon-based Fall Creek is in the business of delivering genetics to blueberry growers around the world, and on a recent visit to Chile the company's farm and nursery manager Cort Brazelton caught up with www.freshfruitportal.com to discuss the South American challenge of supply bottlenecks, varietal shifts and boosting demand because of flavor and quality; health benefits alone cannot drive the crop's future.
Brazelton says the high antioxidant levels registered for blueberries in 1996 helped raise awareness and demand of the fruit, but now that knowledge is well-established the industry needs flavor improvement if it is to reach its full potential.
"People can rationalize their purchasing of blueberries because they’re healthy and people feel good about it, but the main reason people eat blueberries – when they’re good - is that they're easy and fun and kids want to eat them," he says over a glass of the fresh raspberry juice so typical of Chile.
He appears at home in Santiago, where he has been visiting since he was eight in his father's dealings with producers, back in the days when plant material orders were sent by telex. The company still has the same customers it had back then but business conditions have changed substantially over time.
"10 years ago you could take a field of O'Neal [variety], you could pick it in the morning - field pack into clamshells sometimes - get it in the cooler, onto the airplane the next day and people are eating it in five or six days. It was wonderful," he says.
"Now we take that same piece of fruit, we put it into a lug, that rides out of the farm to a packhouse where it gets packed on a mechanical packing line, goes into the cooler and waits for export - maybe there will be delays, and then it enters on the boat ride. You finally arrive in the United States and if you’re lucky maybe it’s 28-30 days old fruit.
"That fruit has many more challenges than the New Jersey blueberry for example, or that same blueberry out of Chile 10 years ago; we're asking more of them and varieties are a big deal."
Brazelton is quick to clarify this is "self-serving" given his company's business, but the reality is that a large portion of today's varieties in Chile are "not suitable for what the industry needs to be successful in the future".
"That's unfortunate because I’ve spent enough time in the fields down here in Chile to know how much work and effort is put into that product - farming is an emotional thing, and when you put your heart and soul into something it's hard when you feel like you're not getting out what you put in," he says.
"But a large portion of the best growers in the world are in Chile, most of the leading blueberry companies in the world are Chilean companies, and the greatest innovators in opening new markets up to blueberries are in Chile."
To keep pace with innovation and quality demands, he says "quite a few growers" have jumped on the opportunity to plant new and better varieties, such as the University of Georgia's Ochlockonee rabbiteye blueberries.
"There's a lot of reluctance now in the U.S. towards the older rabbiteye varieties being grown in Chile."
He says the Ochlockonee is different to the Elliott and Aurora varieties in that it can be planted in areas like Chillan that miss out on summer rains, and can be harvested at a similar time so the season in that region can be extended.
"I remain unconvinced it’s the best thing we’re going to have in the coming years to be in the late deal, but it’s the best thing we’ve had for the last few years.
"It's reasonably firm, it's not crunchy, it's good, arrives well and the most selective buyers in the U.S. have told me they accept the variety.
"Now we have have a new complement to it. Rabbiteyes need pollenators so we need to improve the rabbiteyes that we’re offering; we have a new one here now and out next year for trial, and it's called Overtime, from the Fall Creek breeding program."
While trials continue, for the moment Fall Creek is recommending Powder Blue as a cross-pollinator for Ochlockonee, but it has small berries and some common ancestry, so you don't get the compatibility of pollen.
"One of the conversations I have with people is they ask, ‘will I get paid more for this?' I’m not a retailer, but sometimes the challenge is getting more money for the fruit, and the other challenge is having it to be accepted or at least preferred.
"It doesn't mean you'll always get paid more but it means you’ll always have a home, and that’s a good thing."
He adds another University of Georgia variety, the Camellia, has been successfully trialed in Chile.
"One of the challenges in Chile is the phenomenally diverse climates, and a northern highbush like Duke needs more chill hours in the wintertime, and it’s been grown in a lot of places where there’s not enough chill to grow Duke.
"A lot of those places are where Camellia ripens at a similar time as Duke, in say Rancagua, but with more leaves, more volume, vigor, and more fruit.
"It goes back to the needs of a Chilean grower in the long term – higher yields and harvest efficiencies, because you’ve got to compete for labor and arrivals. This one has huge potential."
He says Camellia blueberries are extremely flexible and the beauty is they don't need too many chill hours.
Great opportunities for Argentina
While Argentina's blueberry industry may have its problems, Brazelton believes it has great potential to improve its offering.
"Like Chile, the boom led to people moving fast, taking aggressive positions, they built higher cost structures based on the higher prices at the time, assumptions about scale were made that ended up not being true; what scale you could have that could be competitive, and a lot of the wrong varieties were planted," he says.
"There is despair down there in the whole ag deal and the blueberry deal. There are a lot of people who have invested huge amounts of their money and hard work, their families’ money, and are having a hard time recovering it.
He says the Argentine blueberry deal is only going to come under more pressure from the Pacific Northwest growing better late season varieties later into their window, while pressure will also come from Peru.
"Peru will take a lot of time to develop, but as it develops it will come along and will compete with Argentina.
"Argentina's going to to come under increased pressure, and Chile’s coming earlier, so what is Argentina’s opportunity? They have some great growing methods, they can get great yields, and they have full legal access to the broadest genetics portfolio in southern highbush; broader than Chile.
"Growers in Argentina have access to the broadest portfolio of blueberries anywhere in the world outside the United States, they can plant almost whatever they want except for a few private breeding programs."
He says the majority of planting during Argentina's boom period was with O'Neal, but varieties that are working well now include Snow Chaser, Emerald, Premadonna, Spring High and Camellia.
"You look at the timing in Argentina over the last few years is actually getting earlier, and that's because of a few reasons - the growth of Tucuman, the introduction of Snow Chaser and Spring High, and improved horticultural systems."
He emphasizes Argentina has the benefit of not having to fumigate to ship to Europe, and growers and exporters have real opportunities to drive down costs.
"There are opportunities to bring additional efficiency in the delivery from the fruit grown in Argentina to the market; right now what we don’t need is a widespread proliferation of brands, and the proliferation of the number of receivers of the fruit.
"Who can the winners be? Scale will be the friend of the winners, they have all the right genetics, and they can have good quality with early fruit by air and having the rest go by boat.
"I think they also need to develop a processed industry."
Building an industry for the future
He says blueberry growers in both countries need to recognize they are producing food that people spend a lot of money to buy.
"So we have to give them their money’s worth, or give them even more than their money’s worth so they come back in droves.
"That's our opportunity. If Chile and Argentina want to get it right, that's how you increase consumption - it's variety, it's management, it's the delivery system, it's marketing, it's planning, it's all of those things.
"There's always going to be more competition."