Chile - Blueberry production
CHILE - BLUEBERRY - CONSUMPTION - DEMAND - PRODUCTION - EXPORTS
Chilean blueberry producers are ramping up volumes as they aim to retain their pole position for years to come. Doris Lee Butterworth reports.
Take one blue fruit, add some fantastic media publicity, mix in ever-rising consumer demand and you have a recipe for one of the biggest success stories of the decade. The global phenomenon that is blueberries shows few signs of slowing down and Chile is one country that is sure to benefit.
Chile is the world’s third largest blueberry producer and is by far the biggest grower in the southern hemisphere. The majority of volumes are grown in the VII to X regions, although in an attempt to extend the season further, producers are also looking to build up production in the northern parts of the country.
While the US is the main importer of Chilean blueberries, Europe, and in particular the UK, are also strong markets.
“We’ve seen an explosion in UK blueberry consumption over the past two to three years,” says Hortifrut’s Francisco Ortuzar. “Unlike some other parts of Europe, the market is familiar with blueberries and category managers have done a good job of promoting the fruit.”
The Chilean season began in late October and while it is early days, marketers have reported a good start to the season. “For the past few weeks, weather conditions have been excellent,” Ortuzar said in mid-November. “We’re in good shape for the new season in terms of volumes and marketing activities.”
Industry experts believe exports could grow as much as 33 per cent this season, with some forecasting shipments of more than 15,000 tonnes, compared to 11,300 tonnes in 2004/05.
Indeed, Hortifrut, which represents one of Chile’s leading berry suppliers, expects its fresh exports to rise 25 per cent this season.
Hortifrut’s berry operations stretch from Chile to Europe, where it has its own production in Spain. In the UK, the leading producer works closely with Redbridge Worldfresh.
“Our association with Hortifrut goes back to the 1980s and indeed the association has led the way in building the excellent demand we now see for blueberries, winter raspberries and blackberries,” claims Ian Waller, sales director.
“At Redbridge we consider our Chilean partners to have an advantage over other countries producing berries at this time of year due to the years of experience and the close working relationship we enjoy.
“Our partners are involved in all our consumer research and have a good understanding of both the UK market and the UK consumer. As with all our berry partners around the world, we consider the grower to be the most vital part of the category management process.”
Redbridge received its first arrivals of Chilean blueberries and raspberries in mid-November and expects volumes to peak throughout December and January.
A wide range of varieties are exported to the UK and producers believe that some others will further benefit the industry. “We handle many excellent varieties of blueberries but the exciting introduction of three new varieties, Liberty, Aurora and Draper, will hopefully help us to extend the Chilean season with some excellent quality fruit,” Waller tells FPJ.
While it may be blueberries that are grabbing most of the headlines, it seems that Chilean raspberries are also finding favour among UK consumers.
Redbridge has been involved in Chilean organic raspberries for a number of years and Waller notes that this season, the firm is experiencing renewed enthusiasm for organic fruit.
Other plans in the pipeline include a number of Redeva raspberry trials being grown in Chile, which are in the early stages.
Chilean growers have long enjoyed alliances with US berry firms and a natural progression of those close ties has been the creation of Driscoll’s de Chile.
The company came into effect this autumn, following a joint venture between the California-based producer Driscoll’s and Chilean firm Sociedad de Representaciones (SRI).
“Driscoll’s and SRI worked together for nine years,” says David Wright, marketing communications manager for Driscoll Strawberry Associates. “We were sole partners for the entire period so we already had a very close relationship where a close alignment of goals existed.”
Driscoll’s de Chile plans to export 1.4m cartons of blueberries this season, rising to a whopping 5m cartons by 2010. The company’s biggest recipient will be the US but Europe, and indeed the UK, is also a priority.
“Driscoll’s de Chile is one of Chile’s top three suppliers and we have many good relationships with growers located in the southern parts of the country,” Wright says. “We’re making more solid foundations in the northern regions and producing blueberries in both areas will extend the season.”
Wright believes the creation of Driscoll’s de Chile will have a beneficial impact on the group’s breeding programmes.
“Our US and Chile operations can exchange and share information and this will enable growers to accelerate the way proprietary varieties are evaluated,” he says. “Obviously we have to take into account that while one berry variety may flourish in the US, it does not necessarily mean that it will perform well in Chile and vice versa.”
Like many other marketers, Wright notes that highly favourable media coverage has contributed to the popularity of blueberries. The small fruit has been called everything from a superfood to a powerhouse and it is fair to say that the emphasis on the blue fruit’s potent antioxidant properties has garnered acres of coverage.
Growers are keen to protect the good name blueberries have attracted in the marketplace and have stressed the importance of continuing to supply consistent, good quality fruit.
In recent years, UK retailers have been given a pat on the back for their support. Short running campaigns offering cut-price fruit often have a keen effect on sales, and the multiples have been rewarded with rocketing demand.
Generic campaigns such as the winter berry campaign, whereby fruit will be promoted irrespective of individual berry or country of origin, is also expected to boost the deal.
“Being a founder member of the newly formed Winter Berry Association, I firmly believe that the PR focus on winter berries will drive impressive growth in the category,” Waller says.
Although there is much to celebrate, exporters remain mindful of potential challenges. Indeed, a number of producers are keen to stress that although Chile is enjoying pole position, there’s no room for complacency.
Ortuzar notes that Chile needs to keep a tight hold on its market share, especially as its competitors are starting to make waves.
From producing virtually no blueberries in the mid-1990s, Argentina is now making up for lost time and throwing its weight behind production. The country has increased its plantings in recent years and according to latest forecasts, some 2,000 hectares are now devoted to blueberries.
While the Argentine season is shorter than Chile’s, it begins exporting earlier in late-September. Many observers feel that in these dynamic times, one should always be aware of the competition and given that Argentina intends to increase its volumes by an estimated 40 per cent this season, it may be prudent to keep a track of the country’s offerings.
While blueberries are currently the hot item of the berry world, that may not always be the case. “We’re constantly searching for the next “super berry” and much of our varietal development work is aimed at producing something new and exciting,” Waller says.
At the moment however, it is clear blueberries are highly beneficial to the Chilean deal.
PRIMA SPIES UK OPPORTUNITIES
Prima Agrotrading is hoping to forge strong ties with the UK this season. The Chilean exporter has only been in the blueberry game for four seasons but has seen its volumes grow substantially in that short space of time.
“We started with 25,000 trays of blueberries in our first season and increased to 50,000 trays in our second,” says Prima’s Alberto Allende. “In 2004/05, we handled 150,000 trays and this season, we’re looking at 250,000 cartons.”
Prima has a strategic alliance in place and supplies its growers with plants. “We’re going to be seeing significant growth in the next few years and are aiming to export one million cartons by the end of the decade,” Allende says.
The exporter has already begun shipping to the US, its main market. Allende notes that it is much quicker for Chile to supply the US with blueberries compared to other overseas markets. However, with the rapid increase in production and advances in controlled atmosphere technology, exports are going to go further afield.
Indeed, Prima is optimistic about opportunities in the UK. “The market has seen big shipments from Chile, there’s a well organised supply chain and good prices,” Allende notes. “The UK is a very attractive and demanding market.