Opinion: Chilean blueberry industry and production recap 2012-13

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Opinion: Chilean blueberry industry and production recap 2012-13

By Dole Berry Company field representative Todd Mauritz

Todd Mauritz 2The 2012-13 Chilean blueberry season will be remembered as a very complicated and challenging one. The following is a brief summary of the season from start to finish, including the climatic problems that were experienced and the other non-climatic issues that exacerbated those problems like low IQF (instant quick freeze) pricing, labor shortages, and market fragmentation.

The season set up to be a nice one. A mild warm (rain-free) spring allowed for great pollination and fruit set across most of Chile, indicating a big crop was on the way. By late spring the northern and central-north regions began to cool while the central-south and southern regions remained warm. This created some concerns that the crop was going to ripen across many regions at the same time and create large harvested volumes in a concentrated window instead of a more staggered harvest.

Fruit from Region VI (O'Higgins) south to IX (Araucania) showed very similar phenological advancement in week 47, and it appeared that the same concentrated harvest experienced in the 2011/12 season was about to happen again. However, three major weather events changed the course of the season. The first was the “black” frost in late November that created substantial damage in the south, the second was the mid-season rain and hail that hammered the central region during peak harvest, and the third was the heat wave that swept across the south for two weeks in late January during their peak.

The first major disruptive weather event occurred on the evening of November 22nd (week 47) when a “black” frost blanketed Regions IX, X (Los Lagos), and XIV (Los Rios) that caused substantial damage (especially for those that did not have frost protection). Immediate projections put the losses around 3,000 metric tons (MT). The negative effects of this frost were experienced throughout the entire season in these southern regions and the damage that was inflicted on the Legacy and Elliott crop was not fully realized until the harvest began.

The second major weather event began in week 50 when heavy rains and isolated hail events swept across most of Chile where they remained for two weeks, most notably disrupting the harvest in Regions VII (Maule) and VIII (Biobio).  These rains came during the first Chilean production peak of the season in week 52 (Duke harvest) and caused serious problems, both in terms of quality and the ability to go into the fields and harvest.

Mold, which had already been observed in many fields throughout these central regions exploded and plagued a substantial percentage of growers.  The Chilean Blueberry Committee commented on this in their Week 1 production report, indicating that mold was going to be “one of the biggest issues this season”, and it was. As well, serious hail events hammered ripening fruit, most notably in Regions VII and VIII, where the negative effects were felt during the entire harvest for some growers.

The third and final detrimental weather event was the heat wave that swept across most of Chile (most notably the southern regions) for two weeks (weeks 3-5), helping to create the second and biggest production peak ever experienced in the history of Chilean blueberries. Fresh exports reached a combined total of 18,000MT in weeks 3 and 4 (original projections had put the combined volumes of these two weeks at 12,500MT). Los Angeles (Region VIII) had 15 straight days above 90°F, Valdivia (Region XIV) two weeks of temperatures that some times reached 94°F, and Osorno (Region X) hovered for multiple weeks around the 90°F mark as well. Combined with the damages of the November freeze, fruit became incredibly soft creating prolonged shipping issues.

These three disruptive weather events created substantial problems that plagued the various regions for a majority of the season. The only regions that were not affected by inclement weather were Regions IV (Coquimbo), V (Valparaiso), and the Metropolitan Region, all northern regions, that account for approximately 8% of total Chilean fresh export volume. Labor and lack of water remain the largest challenges for these regions and present barriers for sustainable growth.

Then there were the other factors that exacerbated these climatic problems, like low IQF pricing, labor shortages, and market fragmentation. Pricing for IQF was on average 45% lower than it was for the 2011-2012 season, motivating growers to send their questionable (in terms of quality) fruit to fresh.  Although the 2011-2012 IQF pricing was unusually high, the pricing this season was approximately 15% lower than the past five-year average. Approximately 8,000 to 10,000MT of fruit that should have gone directly to IQF was diverted to fresh. Consequently, the U.S. market this year was at times flooded with a lower grade fruit being liquidated for low prices bringing down pricing for others with a higher grade fruit.

Although the season is not entirely finished, the total fresh export volumes will exceed the orginal pre-season estimate of 85,000MT. This represents a 25% increase in volume from the 2011-12 season.

The labor shortage, which has been discussed now for many seasons, was strongly felt for many this season, especially in the central-south and southern regions (Region VIII and south).  Many growers complained of their inability to acquire enough workers to harvest their fields in the necessary time, which also led to some quality problems, as fruit was not harvested on time, creating over-mature fruit being harvested later. Authorities in Region X even contemplated ending their season early due to the lack of labor.

For years now, the mining industry has continued to consume a lot of available labor by offering higher salaries and consistent year-around work. This is a serious problem and one that could present a barrier to growth for the Chilean blueberry industry. Conversations in the Chilean government indicate that special work visas will be issued to foreign workers to create a new migrant workforce. However, this foreign worker visa process has not yet been finalized nor a comprehensive plan formally presented to outline how it will work and how many workers would become available.

Another emerging factor that is exacerbating these non-climatic issues on the consumer side of the industry is the fragmentation within the Chilean industry. Consumers in the United States had more labels than ever to choose from this past season, which creates difficulty for the consumer to choose a brand in a particular store that offers a consistent product. With so many new Chilean blueberry exporting and importing operations, the consumer is now presented with a myriad of new label options that inevitably provide different standards of quality.

This unfortunately does not lend to the establishment of a more uniform and consistent product reaching the store shelf, which can be important during complicated seasons like this one. The consumer rarely is aware of the climatic factors that affect quality and exportability and look to the store to provide a consistent quality product. A more consolidated industry, where a greater percentage of fruit is graded and exported in a more uniform manner would create a more consistent final product and increased brand loyalty.

I think everybody in the industry can agree that we don’t hope to see a season like this again. The climatic “anomalies” that were experienced this season may allude to a bigger global problem. As an industry we should plan ahead and work on the assumption that we will face these same problems again and be prepared to deal with them in new and innovative ways. One way to do this is to continue improving pre and post harvest practices. The continued development and planting of better varieties, improved cold-chain management, strong food safety protocols, new exporting systems (like bulk shipments), and innovative post-harvest technologies are all paramount to deliver a consistently high quality blueberry from Chile.



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