Opinion: don't give up on Chilean blueberries yet

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Opinion: don't give up on Chilean blueberries yet

By Fall Creek Farm and Nursery manager Cort Brazelton

FALL CREEK Cort Brazelton c2012 1Though it may seem a strange metaphor, I can't help think that the Chilean blueberry industry reminds me of Sylvester Stallone's Rocky series. There have been early wins followed by some difficult losses, but it's worth stepping back and taking inventory on the state of this impressive prize fighter. The argument can be made that the series is only just beginning.

No doubt Chile's blueberry industry faces Challenges. Let's start with a quick review of some of the "new" challenges and setbacks.

Lobesia & US protocols: The discovery of this new pest and the implementation of new importation protocols for Chilean shipments into the U.S., particularly fumigation, have added an additional bottleneck to an industry already struggling to deal with logistics and arrivals.

Port strikes: This season's port strikes during a period of peak shipping did economic damage to many exporting industries in the country. The impact was real and for many the financial repercussions will be felt for some time.

Increasingly erratic weather: While this could be said for many growing regions in the world struggling to manage the new challenges wrought by global climate change, the disruptions in Chile seem to have been particularly severe in recent years. Be it extreme heat in the central region during harvest or hard winter and spring freezes, the weather has been a 'bad guy' in this movie for some years.

New regions challenging Chile's position: There is a lot of noise these days about new growing regions seeking to challenge Chile as the leader in counterseasonal supply. Peru and Mexico are indeed active in blueberries. Mexico is in the early stages of staking a position as a reliable supplier of quality fresh blueberries for many months of the counterseason, especially for North America.

Mexico will raise the bar for freshness and product quality as availability increases. Peru is still early in its early development, with a young industry that has proven that it can plant fields of blueberries which produce fruit, but has yet to demonstrate an ability to consistently deliver quality - time will tell.

Chile faces some familiar ongoing challenges as well

Arrivals: Chilean growers produce wonderful product in-country. Some of that product arrives well to the market, much of that product today, does not.

Labor: As in the developed world, labor is an increasing challenge. Costs will not go down and labor availability is unlikely to increase. Attracting labor to a growers' field to get a crop picked will be an ongoing challenge.

Fractionalized marketplace: A large number of handlers both on the exporting and receiving side all sell a similar product, often to the same customers with limited differentiation.

Barriers to reinvestment: A lack of good returns amidst supply shocks, arrival issues and a range of other factors have left many in the industry with fewer financial resources available to reinvest in the business.

Genetics: The Chilean industry has had comparatively limited access to better genetics in the last 20 years. While the rest of the world's leading geographies planted the new high, mid and low chill varieties, the Chilean industry planted relatively few of those new varieties due to issues of licensing and lack of legitimate access.

Distance to Asian markets: Asia is an exciting and growing market for Chilean blueberries, especially with direct market access to the Chinese mainland. Nonetheless, the distance and duration for maritime shipments is a hurdle that poses a challenge even for the strongest fruit. Meeting quality and volume demands of the Asian marketplace will require maritime shipments and today's fruit and delivery systems are not a consistent success.

Advantages & opportunities: still time to position for the future

A professional industry: Many of world's best blueberry growers and companies are Chilean.

A global leader: Chile is the world's second-largest producing country and the largest blueberry exporter. This position will not be challenged for some time.

New genetics have arrived at every chill level and more will continue to be introduced:  Those with resources to invest have an opportunity to take a position in new higher quality and potentially more efficient and higher yielding varieties.

Post-harvest systems: New technologies are being introduced which could considerably improve arrivals and product quality.

Infrastructure: Chile is ahead of its competitors in many respects here – keep that lead and build on it.

Land Costs: Chile has comparatively lower land costs vis a vis other premier growing regions.

Processing: While there has been some processing in Chile for many years, only a small group of operators have pursued the opportunity aggressively and sought to play in this highly competitive and generally lower margin, high entry cost business. Historically it has been a channel for by-products and non-exportable fresh product, often not participating in the value added portions of the business.

Chile now has the volume needed to achieve critical mass. Some regions are also able to realize "Pacific Northwest yields" with the right varieties and management systems. Scaling this industry will take time and investment but the opportunity is there and many have begun to pay attention to it.

Market Diversification: Well underway – Chileans are an example to the world when it comes to export market development…keep it up!

Consumption taking off in Europe and Asia: Serve them and serve them well, and Chile can own these markets for many months of the year.

The Chilean blueberry industry has undergone some challenging years and is no doubt experiencing a correction. There will be fallout. But during a time when many in the global industry make dire predictions about Chile's future in blueberries and instead focus on shiny new opportunities, it is worth stepping back and recognizing that like Rocky the boxer, Chile may no longer be a young underdog but there is still plenty of fight left.


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