The Chilean blueberry industry has had its fair share of obstacles over the past year, but the situation is looking up for growers this campaign with an uptick in volume expected and demand remaining strong. To discuss matters in further depth, www.freshfruitportal.com caught up with Chilean Blueberry Committee executive director Andrés Armstrong at the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) Fruittrade Latin America event in Santiago last week.
With the Chilean blueberry season well and truly underway now, how’s everything been shaping up so far for the industry?
It’s going very well. We’re in line with what we had originally forecast for the season. Last year our volumes were quite heavily affected by the frosts, but this year we’re expecting to continue along our normal growth expectations. We are forecasting a 40% increase in export volumes compared to last season, and a 20% increase compared to the season before last. We started roughly one week earlier than a normal season, and the fruit quality is really good too. So in all in we’re back to a regular and positive season, which is great for the Chilean industry.
Do you expect volumes to continue growing at such a significant rate for the years to come?
No. Most of the plantations in Chile had their peak a few years ago and at the moment there’s work going on in terms of varietal development than increasing the surface area. The industry growth is largely coming from those plantations that have not yet reached their peak. So growth going forward definitely won’t be quite as high as 20% annually.
Would you say there are some particular aspects of the fruit this varietal development is generally aimed at modifying?
There are many. Some people are looking for an earlier variety, others are looking for a different taste, some for blueberries that have a really good shelf life, some that are really big, but still firm. Generally these bigger varieties fetch better prices than smaller ones. There are lots of new club varieties appearing as well.
You say the campaign started around a week earlier than normal. Will this translate into it finishing up a week early too?
Not necessarily, although we’re still not sure. We hope that it will finish normally. The production in this central region isn’t really related to crops growing further south in the country, so if one region starts early it doesn’t mean other regions will also finish early. But thus far everything looks to be on track with our initial expectations.
And how has the global market been for exporters?
It’s been good, as this year we started a little bit early we went into a market that was hungry for blueberries. We’ve got strong volumes and great quality, and we’re seeing growth in demand all throughout the world; in parts of Asia, in Europe, and we’ll continuing our work in the United States, so overall it’s looking very positive.
The U.S. has historically been a very important market for Chilean blueberries. Are similar levels being sent there as they were a few years ago or is the proportion changing?
The proportion is going down a bit. In 2012-13 it was 80%, then last year that went down to 70%. That was mainly due to the frosts and due to the Lobesia Botrana problem, so while U.S. volumes lowered a bit European volumes stayed fairly normal.
Are they any new markets of areas in particular that you are working on developing?
In the U.S. there are always areas that we’re trying to develop. We have a program at the moment in the U.S. and Canada that is focused on retail and foodservice. In Europe there are markets that we’ve identified as having big potential for exporters, and so we’re trying to develop those. And there’s also the Russian market, which is really growing quite quickly. The other one is Asia, where our main focus is on China the moment. Chile is the only country that is allowed to export fresh blueberries directly to China, and it’s our main Asian market. Last year Asia took 9% of our total export volumes and at least 50% of that went to China. The other important Asian market is South Korea, where just Chile and the U.S. have fresh blueberry access.
And will Russia-bound shipments be ramped up now that many western countries are not able to export there after the ban?
Not necessarily, because the embargo is mainly on countries that have production in the Northern Hemisphere, and so it doesn’t really affect us during our export season. In fact it could actually be more of a problem than an opportunity because the commercial trade from other export countries could slow down somewhat and that could affect the development of this market.
There were some frosts in southern parts of the country back in October affecting blueberry growers, and the Chilean Blueberry Committee said industry losses could range anywhere from zero to 10%. Have there been any updates on this figure?
There is no change, because the estimate takes into account historical climatic factors which have generally occurred around the start of the season. The frosts were in line with a normal season. Obviously if you speak to growers in some specific areas there will be some who have lost a lot of their crop, but with regard to the whole industry it won’t have that much of an effect.
And what part does the Lobesia Botrana problem play for the sector?
The work we’re doing to combat the pest is in conjunction with the public sector – so the Ministry of Agriculture and SAG (Agriculture and Livestock Service) – and the private sector. This is not just something for the authorities to deal with, but also the industry needs to make sure that it is carrying out the correct chemical sprays in control areas at the right time, in such a way that has been recommended to the producers. So this is a joint effort. So far the results of the new National EGVM Program are not visible yet, as at the moment we’re still in the first cycle. From mid-December, with the beginning of the second cycle we will be able to evaluate the results.
This season we have caught more male adults compared to the same date than we did last season, but we’re still not quite on par with the new national Lobesia Botrana program. We believe that the new program will definitely have a positive effect. For blueberries what we’re trying to demonstrate is that the problem with the Lobesia Botrana is concentrated in just a few specific areas, and not entire regions.
I understand that as well as these national programs, industry officials also hold workshops to speak face-to-face with blueberry growers about this problem.
That’s right. This is a pest that is new to blueberries here – Chile is actually the first country in the world whose blueberry production has been affected by it. So these talks and workshops that we do with producers are introducing them to a new problem new, so they learn about what its habits are, how it works, understand a bit about the biology of the insect, and also we can explain what the most effective control methods are for this insect. This is work that we do with growers from lots of different regions from around the country.
When was it frist discovered in Chile?
2008, but it was probably around for a bit beforehand, although before it was only affecting grapes. It’s something that is very common in European plantations, like in Spain and Italy, and then it recently arrived to Chile.
Chile is known for its impressive phytosanitary record due to the mountains down the side and the desert to the north making it very hard for pests to cross the borders. Is there an industry consensus as to how the pest first entered Chile?
There are some theories about how it got here, the most accepted of which is that it came in imported agricultural machinery from Europe. That’s generally the most common view over its arrival.
Are there any alternative control techniques to chemical spray applications that growers can use?
There are various things they can do. One is the chemical spray applications, there’s another technique that is used and that involves infusing the female pheromone and so the males come and get confused as they don’t know where the females are to mate. This is a technique that is being used more widely this season, and we have a higher availability of the materials so we can cover a larger area.
So there’s the chemical applications, the sexual confusion technique, but there’s another method. What’s particular to Chile is here we have a lot of houses that have grape vines in their gardens, which are the main hosts of this pest. So what’s really important is that producers don’t just check what’s going on on their own farm, but also their neighbors’. Because often a grower’s farm will be right next to people’s houses who have grapevines, which really attract this pest. So we also need to try and do with neighbors.
For some pests in parts of the word the male flies are caught, sterilized and then released so they cannot reproduce, could this be an option in Chile?
At the moment they’re doing some research around male sterilization, but it’s still in progress.
Do you think it would be possible to completely rid Chile of this pest in the next decade or two?
That’s a difficult question to answer, because the nature of the pest is that it’s always changing and evolving. Today there are areas that will need some amount of time to get rid of it, whether that’s 10 or 20 years, it’s hard to say.
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