Inclement weather damages northern Chilean grape vines, irrigation systems

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Inclement weather damages northern Chilean grape vines, irrigation systems

The northern early-season table grape regions of Chile have been hit badly by rains and mudslides, just two years into recovery from a similar event in 2015. 

While the season is well over, intense rains in the regions of Atacama and Coquimbo have taken their toll on the table grape industry, with the overflowing of the Copiapó River affecting irrigation infrastructure and vineyards.

Copiapo Valley Agricultural Producers and Exporters Association (APECO) president Lina Arrieta said above-ground irrigation lines have been totally destroyed.

"We don't know how many months it will be before the situation normalizes, but it will affect the crops that are fed by those irrigation systems," she told Fresh Fruit Portal

APECO representatives are expected to inspect farm impacts today with National Agricultural Society (SNA) president Ricardo Ariztía.

"What we know for sure is that there are damages, and they're not minor," she said, adding vineyards closest to riverbanks were the most affected with vineyards covered in mud."

She described the sector as "desolate".

"We went through the mudslides of 2015 and now we have had a a very bad season for returns, with one million fewer boxes, and now this happens," she said.

"Growers will have to take on expenses that were not considered and without a doubt this will affect the hiring of labor. This concerns us because we don't want to increase the unemployment that Atacama already has." 

Arrieta said the weather event led the group to suspend its annual International Table Grape and Olive Summit.

"The conditions aren't there for it. In fact the facilities of Agrícola Unifrutti, which is where we were going to host the event, have 40cm (15¨) of mud within the packinghouse where we had everything ready for the seminar," she added. 

The effects further south

In a release, María Inés Figari, president of Coquimbo-based organization Northern Agricultural Society (SAN), said the biggest impacts in her region had been felt in waterways and vegetable greenhouses while road obstructions meant the citrus harvest would be delayed by about two weeks. 

She said around 80 hectares of vegetables had been lost due to flooding in the Santa Gracia ravine.

In the release, El Palqui Small Growers Union president Fidel Salinas said in the Limarí area producers were trying to recover their greenhouse vegetables through the application of fungicides. He expected a lot of crops would be lost and tomatoes would break due to the excess moisture.

"This problem adds to the drama facing table grape growers who have been left in debt, which means urgent support is needed from the government to support the agricultural sector," Salinas said. 

In Illapel, SAN director Ignacio Millet said the most complicated issue was the overflowing of a canal that complemented the El Bato Dam in La Colonia, which meant two other waterways were blocked and water runoff damages irrigation equipment, flooding land including avocado fields.

Despite the challenging situation, Figari said it was "not all bad news" as damages were minimal given the amount of rainfall that occurred in such a short time.

"While there are areas with problems, the damage in the region was lower relative to the rain that was produced. This gives us great peace of mind for the coming years because there is snow on the mountains and it is expected there will be other rain fronts in the coming days," she said.

"I think we are seeing a reversal of the drought situation we experienced, and the dams are filling up, but it's important to take note that we who are permanently exposed to climatic risks should be well organized so we can quickly know what situation farmers find themselves in.

"As the Northern Agricultural Society we are concerned with creating a communication system between farmers so they can be informed about their needs in these types of events."

Government response

Chilean Agriculture Minister Carlos Furche said direct support systems would be provided to affected growers, following a similar scheme to the one implemented in 2015.

"We have the first evaluation which indicates to us that in Atacama there are around a thousand small growers affected to different degrees, mainly from the rupture of channels that could be partially affected, irrigation wells that could have been buried and also small livestock farmers who could have lost some of their livestock, mostly goats," Furche said.

"While this emergency is serious, for the agriculture sector it doesn't have the catastrophic characteristics of the mudslides of March, 2015." 

He said while there could be difficulties for some vineyards covered in mud, the experience from the previous event showed the farms could be recovered quickly.

"In the case of affected small growers, mainly in the lower part of the Copiapó Valley, the only possibility is to start the productive cycle again by delivering the corresponding aid so they can get access to credit, machinery to clean and the possibility to rebuild greenhouses, among other things."

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