Agronometrics Interviews: A look at the Serbian blueberry industry

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Agronometrics Interviews: A look at the Serbian blueberry industry

The blueberry industry in Serbia has experienced a notable expansion in recent years, largely attributed to the adoption of cutting-edge technology by the nation's emerging cohort of blueberry producers. This technological integration has enhanced various facets of production, including calibration, sorting, and packaging processes, alongside the establishment of larger-scale farming operations.

As orchards mature and achieve optimal yields, Serbia has observed a substantial surge in the export of fresh blueberries, predominantly to key markets such as the Netherlands, Russia, Poland, Germany, and the UK. The country has also witnessed the establishment of contemporary cold storage facilities and distribution centers, contributing to its strengthened position within the global blueberry market. Leveraging its strategic geographical location, Serbia has been able to command above-average pricing for its produce.

Below, we delve into the dynamics of the industry through an exclusive interview with Sanja Larsson, CEO and Founder of Pureberry.

Sanja Larsson, CEO and Founder, Pureberry

Sanja Larsson, CEO and Founder, Pureberry

What is Pureberry all about? 

I am originally from Serbia; I moved to the United States at the age of 17, where I spent a considerable amount of time. It was there that I met my husband, who is Swedish. Eventually, we decided to relocate back to Europe. One Christmas, we contemplated the idea of investing in Serbia. The country boasts abundant arable land and a population with a knack for agriculture, often referred to as having "green fingers." Serbia is known for its intensive agricultural activity, with a significant portion of its GDP attributed to IT, development, and agriculture.

However, looking back 12 years ago, I failed to realize that Serbia lacked the necessary infrastructure to support the fresh produce industry. While the country excelled in IQF raspberries, the production of fresh berries was hindered by inadequate infrastructure. Fresh berries require impeccable infrastructure, which was lacking in Serbia at the time. Therefore, we decided to take matters into our own hands and upgrade the berry production technology. This involved investing in new varieties, conducting trials, and recognizing that it would be a time-consuming process.

How did you revamp the berry industry in Serbia? 

Our efforts in revamping berry production involve a strong focus on sustainability, particularly in water conservation. Achieving this goal necessitates the use of substrate in pots to facilitate closed-cycle water systems that minimize pollution. This approach enables us to cultivate berries even in environmentally sensitive areas, such as the Dinaric Alps, at altitudes of up to 600 meters. Additionally, we employ white anti-hail nets in plains to serve a double purpose. Besides hail protection, they shield crops from excessive heat and sun exposure.

As an entrepreneur, I find this endeavor exhilarating as it allows me to play the roles of both a scientist and an inventor. Indeed, this is one of the key motivations behind establishing our own company. Our team has grown to encompass approximately 70 individuals, and we have established our own logistics division complete with a fleet of trucks. Our facility spans over 4,000 square meters and is equipped with state-of-the-art technology, including cold storage and forced cooling systems, sourced from top manufacturers in Europe.

For blueberries, we have two fully equipped packaging lines, one of which was acquired from Azcaval, a renowned Spanish manufacturer. These lines feature automatic weighing and dispatching capabilities, as well as top sealing functionality. With a capacity to dispatch four trucks within a 24-hour period, we operate around the clock during the harvest season with three shifts to ensure efficient processing and preservation of the harvest. Maintaining a strict 30-minute window from field to cold storage maximizes sustainability and minimizes harvest losses.

Europe Fresh Export Volume By Partner | Cultivated Conventional


Serbia Fresh Export Price History | Cultivated Conventional

How do you use data? 

Firstly, it's essential to consider the data related to environmental microclimate elements. Even if production sites are relatively close, variations in microclimates can significantly impact outcomes. For example, changes in temperature or the presence of certain insects can affect crop health. To manage pesticide usage effectively, proactive measures are necessary. By anticipating potential issues, such as increased insect populations due to environmental disturbances, we can take targeted actions to mitigate risks.

Data from meteorological stations plays a crucial role in our operations. This information is seamlessly integrated into our irrigation systems, supporting water conservation efforts. By closely monitoring humidity levels and other environmental factors, we can optimize irrigation practices to minimize water waste. This data-driven approach ensures efficient resource utilization and contributes to overall sustainability.

Effective field management hinges on understanding and respecting the surrounding ecosystem. Failure to do so can result in increased production costs and environmental harm. By staying informed about environmental changes, such as disturbances in natural habitats, we can adapt our practices accordingly. This includes leveraging insights from various sources, such as news articles reporting on environmental issues. Engaging our team in these monitoring efforts is essential for collecting comprehensive data and fostering a culture of environmental stewardship. By investing in advanced technology and prioritizing team engagement, we ensure that our operations remain environmentally responsible and sustainable.

What strategies do you employ to prioritize sustainability?

Well, essentially, our company's primary focus is sustainability, including water preservation. I believe that's the answer given the changing climate and the environmental impact.

I've made a personal commitment to remaining in this business only if we can produce sustainably. This commitment resonates with our team, attracting individuals who value environmental stewardship. I mean, people are inspired and they want to work for a company that cares for the environment. So it's like a catch-22 in a good sense.

The more you improve on sustainability, the more you kind of think through the process and the better you become as a producer because you're forced now to challenge yourself in terms of technological improvements in your production.

Improving sustainability prompts us to think critically about our processes and challenges us to enhance technological capabilities. Achieving this requires a significant initial investment in infrastructure, but it's essential for minimizing harvest loss and maximizing economic efficiency.

Harvest loss is everything that happens when you're growing foods. If you're only producing 50% of class 1 foods what happens with the rest? That’s not good economic feedback, right? So, our next step is to utilize every part of the plant, including the leaves, to minimize waste in our production process. This holistic approach aligns with our commitment to sustainability.

So, the second aspect is post-harvest management. Ensuring that the cold chain is established early on is crucial to minimize wastage of resources like water. While we haven't achieved a zero carbon footprint yet, it's our next goal. Perhaps investing in green trucks locally could be a step in the right direction, especially considering the challenges of long-distance transportation. Harvest, pre-harvest, and post-harvest management, along with selecting the right partners, are essential considerations.

While we primarily focus on blueberry production, our product offering includes vegetables. Why vegetables? Because it allows us to keep our employees engaged for at least 10 months of the year. For me, this reflects corporate social responsibility, which should begin within the organization. CSR isn't just about donating money to external organizations; it's about ensuring year-round employment for our staff and reducing resource wastage through a lower learning curve. 

What future do you envision for the Serbian blueberry industry?

Serbia is undoubtedly making significant strides forward. I am already observing that smaller producers in our vicinity are emulating our production technology as a model. I see producers maybe coming together more and I expect a better yield quality and higher quality products coming out of Serbia. Our climate, which is neither too hot nor too cold, positions us well amidst the changing global climate. We're fortunate not to have experienced the extreme weather events like droughts or heavy rainfall that some regions face.

However, ensuring year-round employment for our team remains a significant challenge. Diversifying our product range beyond blueberry production is crucial in this regard. Furthermore, it is essential for us to prioritize knowledge sharing with other agronomists. We should consider reaching out to those who are not direct competitors, such as Portugal, and explore opportunities with others who are willing to collaborate and exchange knowledge.

Artificial intelligence is increasingly vital in agriculture, particularly in adapting to climate change sustainably. It's essential to strike a balance between investing in technology and facilitating growth, ensuring accessibility for both large and small companies to drive meaningful change beyond isolated bubbles of progress.

Additionally, I would like to support other women-based businesses and make sure that we are able not to just work for companies but also be leaders of companies and that requires women supporting women.

In our ‘Interviews’ series, we work to tell impactful stories by collaborating with leaders in the industry. Feel free to take a look at the other articles by clicking here.

All pricing for domestic US produce represents the spot market at Shipping Point (i.e. packing house/climate controlled warehouse, etc.). For imported fruit, the pricing data represents the spot market at Port of Entry.

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