Chilean pomegranate production 'lower and earlier'
A Chilean pomegranate processor has said various climatic issues have led to a more challenging and earlier season than normal, but is confident a very strong future lies ahead both at home and in the U.S.
Aril distributor Frülz was founded in 2013 as joint venture between investment fund the FSA Group and three other partners, and has developed patented technology to process the exotic fruit that it buys from an array of producers.
The ready-to-eat arils are then shipped via airfreight to markets including the U.S., Canada, Russia and Europe.
Frülz general manager Ignacio Donoso Schulz said the season had not been particularly good for pomegranate production, as the drought had taken its toll on volumes in the northern regions.
"I would say it was a bad year for the northern production and good for the central region. The drought really affected production. Of course, some producers were fine, but in general terms pomegranates have been affected," Donoso told www.freshfruitportal.com.
"The producers have had to really look after their crops in order to have a decent season, and many had to compete really heavily with other fruits, like table grapes.
"Production was less this year in all of the northern production areas."
He expected some 12,000 metric tons (MT) of pomegranates to be produced in Chile this year, of which about half would be exported.
According to Donoso, the central areas of the country - the V (Valparaiso), VI (O'Higgins) and Metropolitan regions - were far less affected by the drought and were just beginning their harvest seasons.
He also believed the season generally throughout the country was running slightly ahead of last year, which he attributed to a hotter than normal summer.
Chile's export season for fresh pomegranates typically lasts from mid-March until early May.
Donoso said the U.S. and Russia were the two most important markets for Chilean fresh pomegranate exports, but the latter was far less attractive this year due to the ruble's devaluation.
However, he added a lower production from Chile this year would somewhat compensate in terms of prices.
Competitive market prices
Chile's processed pomegranate industry is relatively new, with Donoso describing it as much more 'niche' than other producing countries like the U.S.
Donoso said Frülz's partnership with various growers was very positive for all parties as it allowed the producers to access markets otherwise unavailable to them.
"We are very close with our growers, as obviously they supply our fruit so we need to have a good relationship with them, and our intention is that it's also a business for them in the sense they can export their fruit," he said.
Frülz has spent much of the last two years developing its now patented technology for the extraction of arils, which Donoso said was very efficient and added a lot of value to the product.
The company exports the prepackaged arils from March through early September.
"We have been able to develop a very intelligent mechanism with which we can distribute the product on a large-scale," Donoso said, adding the technology could be easily replicated in other locations or further improved.
While he would not go into the specifics about how the technology worked, he said was it was very complicated and sophisticated, using many sensors and a high level of automation.
The products' shelf life of around 14 days means they are exported via airfreight. Although this implies a greater cost for the company, Donoso said it was able to remain competitive in the U.S. for a couple of key reasons.
"Due to the high degree of automation we have, we can remain competitive due to our lower spending on manual labor than others. Less manual labor also reduces the risk of contamination.
"In addition, competing U.S. processors have to import fruit and process it there, which adds more costs for them. The fruit can also suffer damage in transit. With us there is no damage or wastage.
"Today we have managed to achieve a very good price in our markets."
Growth down to industry
Donoso highlighted there was vast potential for future growth not only in the U.S. but also in Chile. He said in the U.S. a very low percentage of consumers were even aware of what pomegranate were, and there was therefore plenty of room for development.
"U.S. producers have done very well in promoting the antioxidant aspects of the fruit. It's a superfruit and its antioxidant levels are actually higher than blueberries," he said, adding he believed the sector could grow by 'six or seven times'.
"Much of the growth will be down to the industry, because it's an attractive and beautiful fruit and it can even be fun to eat, but it's messy, tiresome, and slow.
"It's never going to replace an apple, which you can easily give to a child, for instance. But the arils, which are ready to eat, will do well, and juices too have very high acceptance because they maintain the delicious taste of the fruit."
He said the industry in Chile would be relatively slow for both fresh and processed pomegranates to really take off. But he also said there were definitely signs a strong future was on the horizon.
"It always depends on economic factors. Chile in general is adopting lots of customs from the U.S. and Europe in terms of trying new things.
"They also have a higher purchasing power now and so they're willing to pay for products that make life easier, where you don't have to do the process yourself."