Chilean citrus grower finds the bright side from recent weather problems

May 19 , 2017

Intense rains in the northern Chilean region of Coquimbo have led to significant damages in irrigation systems, buried canals, blocked roads and in some cases flooded fields of table grape, avocado and vegetable crops. For some citrus farmers, the situation has also led to harvest delays.

But for Ulises Contador, managing director at Agrícola Las Mercedes in the Limarí Valley, the pain might all be worth it.

The executive, who is also on the board of the Northern Agriculture Society (SAN), the refilling of water reservoirs could lead to a horticultural resurgence in an area that has been in a state of drought for the last six years.

“Our region was one of the most productive before the drought struck us. We [Agrícola Las Mercedes] had 120 hectares in production between citrus and avocados six years ago. Today we have 37 hectares left,” Contador said.

He said the region and its valleys had always been blessed with micro-climates and fertile soils, ideal for a diverse range of crops including avocados, citrus, cherries, apples, raspberries and blueberries.

“The most exported product from the area is table grapes and until last year avocados occupied second place, but with the drought many avocado orchards have been ripped out – close to 70% – and more citrus fruit have been planted, which is why I think this crop will go on to be the second-most exported crop,” he said.

Figures from SAN show there are currently 1,244 hectares of lemons planted in the region, making it the third-largest production area in the coutnry, while there are also 1,054 hectares of oranges and 2,630 hectares of easy peelers (mandarins, clementines and tangerines); this makes Coquimbo Chile’s leading grower in the latter.

But for these new plantings to thrive water is fundamental, according to Contador, who is counting his blessings for the future after the recent rainfall. 

“In some areas of the Coquimbo region around 80mm fell and in others 120mm,” he said.

“There were intense rains that undoubtedly left damages and in some cases very serious ones, but you also have to see the good side of this which is principally the accumulation of snowpack in the mountains, the accumulation of water in the dams, pools and wells – after many years – to be able to plan for future production not just day-by-day but three years’ out, and that’s what the water allows.

“Today all the dams in Limarí are full with the exception of Paloma which is at 40-something percent, and that helps us have a vision for the future because the drought wasn’t over here. We were very pressed and this won’t just be good for fruit growers but for the herders of the area.”

He said the region had lost 60% of its fruit-growing area due to the drought, so the rainfall was welcom.

“Has the rain cost us, made us suffer and caused damages for us? The answer is ‘yes’, but if you ask me if I’d prefer it didn’t rain I’d have to say ‘no’, that I’d rather assume the costs of damages from rainfall.

“We have had practical difficulties, mainly with the operation of tractors which haven’t been able to enter the orchards.

“We were right in the middle of the clementine harvest and now in May we were going to start with lemons, but until now we’ve haven’t been able to pick anything.

He said there were also concerns about oleocellosis, a condition that can occur on the fruit surface due to the rupture of essential oil cells that can lead to the sinking of the inter-glandular tissue and a black coloring in the area.

He said while the region’s industry probably won’t achieve the 26% increase previously forecast, the damages probably won’t be “so strong”.

“We have a labor force available and the infrastructure of the packinghouses hasn’t suffered, so we’ll be relatively all right.”

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