Marketers expect good season for Chilean blueberries
Industry leaders anticipate a good season for Chilean blueberry production and exports to the U.S. through the winter months.
The weather in Chile so far has been good, with only minor freezes and no major damage reported, said Jorge Echenique, general manager at Last Land Farms SA.
“The north harvest is running somewhat later than a normal season, but it is picking up,” he said.
Echenique said the U.S. market will always be a major part of the Chilean crop, and volume should be similar to the 2019-20 season.
“A late Chinese New Year will attract more fruit heading (to Asia), but I don’t think it will change the volumes dramatically,” he said.
Growers also are reducing the volume of older and weaker varieties in favor of better performing ones, which he said is positive for the outlook.
The Chilean Blueberry Committee estimated fresh exports for the current season at 111,500 tons, a similar figure to that of 2019-20 and 2% higher than the previous season.
In the 2019-20 season, Chile’s peak months for blueberry shipments to the U.S. were December, January and February. Chilean exporters sent about one third (32%) of the country’s annual shipments by value to the U.S. in January last season, followed by February (27%) and December (23%).
Total Chilean blueberry exports to the U.S. in the 2019-20 season (September 2019 through August 2020) were valued at $209.7 million, off from $269.9 million the previous season and down nearly $110 million from 2017-18.
Chile’s share of total U.S. blueberry imports was 24% in 2019, down from 33% in 2018 and 44% in 2015.
Peru has seen its share of value of U.S. blueberry imports grow from 9% in 2015 to 41% in 2019, according to USDA numbers.
Harvest of blueberries was underway in the northern growing areas of Chile in the Coquimbo region, where Ovalle counties are the first to start production, said Juan Andres Ferrari, vice president of global sourcing for ACF Global Sourcing.
“Our expected fresh blueberry season should be around 112,000 tons, but if markets during the last weeks of December, January and February show unexpected returns and those are favorable, our total exports could increase 5% to 10% with no problem,” he said, noting that about 15,000 to 20,000 tons could go either fresh or frozen depending on markets.
“Quality should be very good, due to a very nice spring, so far with very mild temperatures giving the fruit the chance to grow at good pace,” he said.
The Chilean Blueberry Committee said one positive development of this season is the greater water availability in regions V, Metropolitan and VI.
“The greater rains in winter and snow accumulated in the mountain range have breathed new life into the regions affected last year by the drought,” the committee said in a crop update.
Improving levels of water reservoirs and snow cap in the Andes have helped the northern and central growing region are positive, Ferrari said.
U.S. Department of Agriculture approval of imports of Chilean blueberries without methyl bromide fumigation should be favorable for increased Chilean organic blueberry shipments to the U.S.
In October, the USDA said it will allow the import of blueberries from the Biobío and Ñuble regions of Chile, where the European grapevine moth “is known to exist, but in which the pest prevalence is low, without requiring fumigation with methyl bromide.”
Because organic fruit can’t be fumigated, the new USDA protocol will open the door for more organic berries from those regions to be shipped to the U.S.
The Chilean Blueberry Committee said a volume of 9,500 tons is estimated at Ñuble and another 7,100 tons at Biobio.
“In total, the volume will reach 16,600 tons, representing 15% of the estimated total for this season. Most of this volume is estimated to be organic,” the committee said.
The committee said the systems approach approved by the USDA will make it possible to replace fumigation. The systems approach consists of a set of pest risk management measures that are carried out at source with a pre-inspection of orchards and fruits, in order to replace fumigation at destination.
“The systems approach will allow fruit of better quality and condition to reach consumers but, even more importantly, it will reactivate organic blueberry exports from these two regions to the U.S. market,” the Chilean Blueberry Committee said.
Ferrari said organic production could see a boost because of the USDA approval of entry in the central growing regions, where the majority of the traditional organic blueberry farms were located.
“During the last five to six years a lot of organic production was promoted south and north of these traditional areas,” he said.
“This is good news for the organic community and good news for the market.”
Ferrari said a couple of years of below-average returns have increased the trend of more direct exporting by larger growers.
COVID-19 protocols are not expected to hurt ocean shipments of blueberries from Chile.
“You never know for sure and of course there is a level of uncertainty in the sector, but everybody is confident that Chilean growers do have the capability to fill their commitments,” Ferrari said, noting that the workforce social turbulence is mild in agricultural areas.
“In terms of port strikes, as usual every year during the season (we) will have some disruptions for three to five days, but the majority of the operations are containerized and give a lot more flexibility if there are delays due to port problems,” Ferrari said.
“There is no doubt that (things) can all go wrong if there are not good responses to the requirements and social demands but we feel confident that ... the level of anxiety in the general population will decrease,” he said.