South Africa misses peak price window for blueberries
November 30, 2012

Although South African blueberry growers project a 30% production increase from last year, cold weather has set the season back by at least three weeks.

Trevor McKenzie, managing director of Eurafruit SA, described a hopeful season, projecting 1,800 metric tons (MT) of output, but explained that weather had pushed production into a less than ideal sales window.

“We expected to really start around the beginning of October and now we’re in the end of October, so it’s about three weeks late,” McKenzie said.

“We do have small amounts in September but only very small amounts. We are working on getting our crop early every year but this year the weather has set us back.

“We’ve missed the very high prices that are in the early part of October so that will affect our net returns to growers. That’s between the seasons. That’s the end of the European crop. I’m talking mainly about the U.K. and Europe because that’s where most of our crop goes.”

Chrisleo Botha, managing director of blueberry producer Blue Mountain Berries, said that on the ground level, the season had been marked by fits and starts.

“I think one way of describing it is hurry up and wait. We’ve got lots and lots of fruit in the orchards. But we’ve got stuck with a cold spell, overcast conditions, temperature not getting over 16 or 17 degrees (61°F or 63°F) for probably about three or four weeks now. So the fruit is there but it’s not ripening up.”

He said that last week the orchard only sent out 20% to 30% of what it expected this time of year. Production has been at 40% to 50% of last year’s levels, Botha said, but as weather improves, output should explode.

To avoid similar setbacks next season, McKenzie said that growers plan to use more plastic tubing to protect crops from bad weather. With a small industry, he said that the ability to maintain quality control is an advantage for South Africa.

“The main advantage we have as a smaller industry is we’ve got a little more control over the exports. We’ve only got really 10 major growers and one main exporter, which means we do have a lot more consistent quality. We’re able to watch our quality more than the bigger growers,” McKenzie said.

“How we’re trying to set ourselves apart is to deliver a consistent quality to our customers. I think over the last two to three seasons we really have achieved that. This year we’ve disappointed our customers quite substantially by not delivering anything just because of circumstances.”

Once production gets rolling, McKenzie projects good quality with about 80% of output going to the export market, mainly in the U.K. About half of this year’s crops is of the jewel and emerald varities.