Mexico’s strawberry and blackberry industries experienced poor productivity over their recent campaigns, but an industry head believes injecting new genetics into the mix will help to lift the sector.
Speaking with Fresh Fruit Portal, National Association of Berry Exporters (Aneberries) president and Hortifrut Mexico general director Diego Martínez explained key goings-on in the berry sector and his expectations for the future.
He said fresh strawberry exports had come to an end in late February, just before the first volumes from the U.S. state of Florida hit the North American market, but highlighted it had not been easy.
“This season in Mexico was complicated,” he said.
“There were a lot of people who planted strawberries, and it was a season of average prices with industry volumes that were lower than average productivity – hovering around 800 boxes per hectare, when in Mexico an average producer has always been able to achieve at least 3,500-4,000 boxes.
“With these volumes and average prices, there were many growers who crashed and went out of business, and I think that they’re not going to plant again this season.”
Martínez said returns had been around the US$10-per-box mark (3.4 kilos), which was a good value for those yielding 4,000 boxes per hectare but not those who produced far less.
“In the 2015-16 season there were weeks when we were returning almost double that amount to the grower, but they were weeks when there was practically no fruit in the market,” he said.
“What I see going forward is a window of opportunity with early plantations around August and September, because we believe that at that time there will be little volume from the U.S.”
He partly attributed the production declines to weather-related factors, like severe frosts at the end of last year, and crop rotation in the major growing state of Michoacan.
He also highlighted the lack of new strawberry varieties in Mexico.
“If we speak about the last five seasons, the varieties are basically the same. No new genetics have entered onto the market, and we are continuing with San Andreas and Safari,” he said.
“Mexico produces very good strawberries, still using old varieties that remain very competitive. I don’t think the issue of genetics is the Achilles’ heel at the moment, but in the future it will be, especially because the markets are asking for them.
“This is the case in Europe, where they’re not interested in the size, but the taste, the Brix, the smell, and other qualities.”
Blackberry volumes up to 40% lower
In the country’s blackberry sector, an absence of new plantings over many years had led to a scenario in which many growers are producing far less fruit than they once did.
Martínez said that if Mexico wanted to keep its status as the world’s leading blackberry producer and exporter, the public and private sector would need to come up with a work plan urgently.
“Some 96.5% of the blackberries come from the state of Michoacan, and the largest growing municipality for this fruit is Los Reyes,” he said.
He said the area had been focused on sugar cane production until the fruit crop was introduced around 25 years ago.
The introduction of the Tupi variety led to an explosion in production, but Martínez said the genetics are now very old and the industry hasn’t bothered to bring in new material over the last two decades.
“That has led to a drop in production,” he said.
“This season in particular we have seen a very marked effect. As an example, a good producer could once achieve 9,000 boxes per hectare and today that figure is lower than 3,000 boxes.
“On top of this are the weather problems, which led to a very complicated season for us.”
Martinez said volumes in general were up to 40% down year-on-year for this season, which ends around late May or early June.
“The reality is that there are private initiatives like Hortifrut and Driscoll’s that are bringing in new varieties, but they are proprietary, and so they are only given to growers who have been working with those companies for a long time,” he said.
“At Aneberries we are seeing how we can help independent producers to bring in new varieties.”
He added that at Hortifrut the company’s blackberry offering was dominated by Tupi, but he explained that for the 2017-18 season the company would have commercial plantings of its own Madeline cultivar.
Chinese inspectors visit blueberry facilities
The country’s blueberry exporters are eagerly awaiting the final green light to ship to the Chinese market, having received a final visit by AQSIQ inspectors a few weeks ago.
“The protocol was signed a the end of last year and basically this is an amplification to the blackberry and raspberry protocol, but all that was left was the official visit to the cold stores and packinghouses to export this coming season,” he said.
“The visit went well, they made some minor observations and we are expecting the information from the Chinese Government with high hopes, and what that we will be ready to export.”
Martinez is cautious about making growth projections for the market, mainly because blackberries and raspberries didn’t quite live up to their high expectations.
“We always think that with the Chinese market there is going to be a bomb in berry exports from Mexico, because of its size, but our experienced with raspberries and blackberries has made us realize that it’s not always like that,” he said.
“China is a market where berries and their properties are still unknown and this needs to be developed.”