Drought tests show strong potential for new fruits in Chile
In Chilean Spanish, someone who excels in a particular area is called 'seco', meaning dry and best understood as 'sharp'. The word carries a double meaning though when applied to the country's fruit growers, who supply the world as the Southern Hemisphere's biggest fruit exporters, meanwhile battling their own water shortages. To find new options, researchers have tested the viability of several fruits - pomegranates, figs, pricky pears, tamarillos and dragon fruit - in the country's arid north.
Test results in the Norte Chico zone show the country's growers have the potential to be 'seco' in producing these crops, which are able to yield more dry matter - and more fruit - than traditional plants using the same amount of water.
The project undertaken by the Universidad de Chile's Center for the Study of Arid Zones (CEZA), cofinanced by the government's Agricultural Innovation Foundation (FIA), showed these fruits are able to tolerate absolute droughts of 35-70 days during summer with satisfactory recuperation once they were newly watered.
The FIA claims these tests in the Atacama and Coquimbo regions set an important precedent, as these areas are suffering from one of the worst droughts in their recorded history, with uncertain irrigation prospects for the next season.
The most tolerant fruit was the prickly pear, withstanding 70 days of drought, followed by pomegranates (50 days), figs (35 days) and tamarillos (35 days).
The FIA did not provide a length of time for dragon fruit using this metric, but mentioned it had an 80% water saving compared to traditional fruits in the zone. In comparison, prickly pears save 83-86% water, tamarillos save 45%, pomegranates save 34-36% and figs save 24-37%.
CEZA director Nicolás Franck said prickly pears, pomegranates and figs had the most consolidation possibilities in the market.
"The national surface area for figs is around 200 hectares and there are companies that export and obtain good prices, but it is a small proportion if you compare it to traditional fruits," he said.
In the case of prickly pears, Chile has around 1,000 hectares planted, mostly in the hands of small growers whose production goes to the local market. According to the FIA, this fruit has sparked great interest among growers in recent years due to the drought in Coquimbo.
While there is no commercial production of tamarillos or dragon fruit at a national level, Franck emphasized that conditions were ideal for the former in Norte Chico, as the fruit starts production very quickly.
"Fruits that are efficient in the use of water mean that with the same amount of resources you can irrigate a larger surface area. They are species that require less water to reach the same yield potential and additionally, show adaptations that allow them to tolerate drought; a great advantage in respect to traditional species," added Alfonso Yévenez, FIA innovation director.
The FIA mentioned the project involved national and international prospecting to build a varietal germplasm of these fruits. In terms of foreign materials, the institute obtained material from tamarillos, prickly pears and dragon fruit that had previously been introduced, as well as the direct import of pomegranate and fig plant material.
Given the strong results, the project will continue with financing from the Coquimbo Regional Government, with support from the Innovation Fund for Competitiveness.
The second part of the project will analyze the productive behavior of the species and varieties in the Limari and Elqui valleys in Coquimbo, with the possibility of creating agroindustrial products with the fruit, testing profitability both in its fresh form and as sub-products.
The team is currently preparing a book of the results which will be made available to interested parties.