Don’t let fumigation fool you, Chile still has plenty of organic blueberries
February 27, 2014

The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) imposition of fumigation measures for Chilean blueberries from some regions due to the presence of Lobesia Botrana has been a challenge for the industry, but for Naturipe Farms the goal has been to continue providing product to clients and returns for growers. During Fruit Logistica in Berlin, spoke with the company’s executive VP of marketing Robert Verloop, who said negotiations were underway with the hope of implementing a systems approach for the fruit.Robert-Verloop-Fruit-Logistica

While fumigation measures have had an impact on a large portion of Chilean blueberry growers – and strikes exacerbated the situation – Verloop believes his company has learned a lot about its customer base as a result, while still managing to provide positive returns to growers.

“It changed the dynamics of the industry in a very short time. It proves again that you have to have long-term planning, it has to be well executed,” he says.

“When something comes up that throws a monkey wrench the business, you have to have the depth to be able to take that and fortunately, for our partner Hortifrut and Naturipe Farms, we were able to move fruit quite effectively to other export markets.

“As we started to finetune the program, we had the flexibility to expand in our airfreight program, and we also had a lot of production out of the quarantine zone – once we were able to to get the fruit off the plants and got it into the boats or airplanes, that put us in a very strong position.”

While the organization has been able to adapt, Verloop says it has been mindful of the “catastrophic” nature of what many Chilean growers have been through.

“So we do everything we can to maximize returns for growers, and in many ways we have to also work to see where that FOB (freight on board) return is going to come from – that could be China, which certainly has absorbed more fruit.

“Thank goodness the Chinese government and the Chilean government started negotiating the opening of the trade routes three or four years ago.

“Then we look at this market where we are today, Europe, and we’ve had the opportunity to bring that product in here – in a broad sense the structure of our organization has proved to have the resiliency both internationally and even within the United States.”

To build on some of the breakthroughs made with U.S. authorities, Verloop highlights that Naturipe and Hortifrut are helping to find a way to implement a systems approach to Lobesia botrana, rather than the fumigation method.

“That’s an approach in a lot of areas around phytosanitary requirements, so it’s not reinventing the wheel, but it’s certainly putting on an extra layer.

“Our goal is to be ready for next season in the most productive way, a positive way, with minimal impact to the industry, but we need to regain and earn that trust again from the marketplace.”

He says one way for Naturipe to regainthat  trust is by acting proactively, leading at the forefront and collaborating with the rest of the industry.

“By the sheer volume we have, we have to do it. We have to do it for our reasons, but more importantly for the entire industry; we’re going to put in a lot of resources, whether it’s Hortifrut or Naturipe, Hortifrut in the Chilean area itself, and show that trust can be gained by not only strength in Chile but in other areas where we produce as a collective group.

“Yes, there were some disruptions for a few weeks here or there, but there always are, whether it’s rain or a variety of things. As an industry, the better we communicate with our trading partners about these disruptions, the better they’re able to react to it.

“We never take for granted that there’s a customer on the other side. Every day as growers we have to earn that trust, that confidence.”

Organic impact

If there is one category within the Chilean blueberry sector that has most felt the impacts of fumigation rules, it is organic growers, who by their nature cannot use chemicals. However, Verloop clarifies some misconceptions about the state of the Chilean organic industry since the measures have come into place.

“While a large percentage of those organics are in the VII (Maule) and VIII (Biobio) region, there are an extremely large amount of organics coming out of IX (Araucanía) and X (Los Lagos) that don’t have to go through fumigation,” Verloop says.

“It’s the late season that certainly bodes well for those growers to be able to continue delivering on the promise they’ve worked so many years on, which is ‘I want to deliver organic product’.

“The beauty of that is continuity, they’’e able to stay with it. Were there some weeks when it was tight? Yes, very tight, no question, but overall I think we’re going to learn a lot about our customer base in ways that even our customers may not have understood.”

The executive says the surface area dedicated to organic blueberries is growing every year in Chile, and sales for organic berries in general have been strong in the U.S., however there have been some “swings” for blackberries and raspberries.

“In the United States organic sales continue to expand. In fact, our strawberry business virtually has doubled in the last few years in organic sales.

“The reasons for that are the technology and the way to grow organic is very clear, and the more we produce the more we can sell.

“One thing that we’re finding though is that the European market and in the U.K., the amount of organic sales has been on the decrease or staying flat – that was shocking to me and it’s something we have to be very mindful of.

He adds that the frozen market is another good opportunity for organic growers, especially now that Hortifrut is merged with Vitalberry in Chile.

“They have several state-of-the-art facilities, and that product is in high demand with a lot of customers, so we’re able to sell domestic frozen product and we’re also able to sell the Chilean frozen product, and we see that as a tremendous opportunity in the organic sector.

“The beauty of that is that it takes away some of the volatility of the marketplace, so no doubt we’re going to see conventional grow, but organic isn’t going to slow down.”

Berry Quick Snacks

Verloop highlights that the company’s convenience- and foodservice-oriented Berry Quick Snacks are going well.

“We’re actually gearing up for a very large push in our domestic market, and we’ve had very good success despite all the issues in Chile.

“We’ve brought a lot of fruit in from Chile, Peru and Mexico to be used for our ready-to-eat program. We’re doing a ready-to-serve program which is a larger container for foodservice operators and distributors.”

Fresh Fruit Portal