Opinion: facing challenges in blueberry production

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Opinion: facing challenges in blueberry production

By Alejandro Sanhueza, agronomer and production manager at Driscoll’s Chile

Alejandro-HijuelasWithout a doubt, Chilean blueberry producers have just finished one of the most complex seasons I can remember.

We got started on Nov. 22 with a strong freeze and black ice in the south, which cut production by at least 50%. What remained was difficult to export due to condition problems.

Later we experienced heavy rains from the central zone to the south, with at least 10 days of downpour during peak blueberry production.

Finally, we had consistently high temperatures in the south during the month of January.

Until now I have listed weather conditions, but we can add the growing labor shortage in our fields, the low exchange rate and the low value of discarded fruit. Could we be talking about the "perfect storm" for our domestic situation?

Weather problems, insufficient labor to harvest in certain zones and the low value of discarded fruit conspired, in my opinion, to create a season in which there were many quality problems on arrival.

Undeniably, the high percentage of fruit rejections that we had in Chile were not sufficient to stop quality problems upon landing and this situation affected the entire industry. A lot of fruit was sent with the conviction that it upheld optimal quality standards but did not have the legs to stand on once at its destination.

What I take from the season is that in general terms, the market absorbed volumes well and the price was good for fruit that met quality standards on arrival. And I refer to the U.S. market, which is the market that continues to consume 80% of our blueberries. This last fact leaves me with a good feeling even after experiencing so many, mostly internal problems.

But let's speak about the future. What do we do to improve our blueberry quality and achieve more reasonable prices in an increasingly demanding market?

While we cannot control the weather or the exchange rate and there is little we can do with respect to the labor shortage, we must accept that it will continue to rain, to freeze, to reach excess temperatures. We cannot dream of a perfect season in that sense. I believe the lines of action can be taken on several fronts:

1. Variety replacement: We should aim for firm, high-quality varieties with good flavor that travel well. The U.S., Europe and China are between 15 and 35 days from our country and we should arrive with perfect blueberries so that the client does not notice the transit time.

2. Exporters should join forces to try to arrive in the least time possible to markets, to cut travel time and perhaps the time from harvest to shipment.

3. Producers should be open about the quantity of fruit that they really can harvest for export. For example, if an orchard needs 200 to harvest 100% of the fruit and only 100 people are doing it, they are not going to be able to achieve good quality and the final result will be worse than having harvested 50% of the orchard for export.

I think we should define at the beginning of the season how many hectares and/or varieties we will harvest in an efficient way, with focus placed on export quality. The rest should be sent directly to the IQF market.

4. I think direct package harvesting represents a major challenge and can be a clear solution for condition problems.

We should break paradigms regarding this type of harvest. So while it may be slower and can increase the labor problem, it is not more expensive than bulk harvesting with subsequent packing. In the end it is more profitable for the producer since rejections in Chile and at the destination tend to be zero. That is very important to obtain a good price and overall business.

5. Transparency on the exporters' part is also very important. I refer specifically to informing producers of quality problems upon arrival. Historically rejections have occurred at the destination. In the last few years these have been increasing because the markets are more demanding and because of weather problems.

This is a business based on confidence. If you mix rejects with the sales pool, the producer will never know how the fruit arrived and will not be able to improve or change (the variety, management, etc).

6. Technical assistance: a business that has already matured with high volumes and adjustable sales prices demands more technical rigor. Fertilization, pruning and irrigation are key to increasing our quality and output. On the other hand, being able to count on soil and foliar analysis every year allows us to make the necessary adjustments to achieve success in our business and to make a call to our agronomists and technical advisors to be at the forefront.

Finally, I think this season should mark the beginning of a new era for our industry. Producers and exporters should continue building and growing together. We must look after the international prestige of our exported fruit. Chilean blueberries are what go out to the world, and not just a particular brand.

Moreover, "international competition" is active. There are countries like Mexico, with a variety of climates that allow for harvesting at times very close to ours (February to April, for example). Mexico also has the benefit of being close to the main market, the U.S. There is also Peru with unbeatable weather conditions, good soil and labor that will allow the country to position itself during the months of September to November.

It is the quality and not the volume that will allow us to continue being leaders in this business that, fortunately, is growing. There are more and more consumers from all over the world that are developing a taste for the fruit.



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