Freezes in major Argentina growing areas may lead to tight blueberry supplies and high prices early in the season, but supplies and prices should return to their usual levels as the season progresses, U.S. importers say.
In August, the Argentinean Blueberry Committee, Buenos Aires, predicted growers would export 16,000 tons of blueberries this season, up from 15,000 tons last year.
By early September, however, it revised the estimate downward to 14,900 tons.
About 63% of Argentina’s blueberry exports should end up in the U.S., with roughly 30% destined for Europe and the United Kingdom, committee manager Inez Pelaez said.
Teddy Koukoulis, director of blueberry operations for Wish Farms, Plant City, Fla., was in Argentina in late August and saw a farm with no freeze protection in the Tucuman region that suffered up to 40% crop damage.
“The first pick will suffer,” he said. “That’s where the damage is.”
The grower should be able to continue to pick through the season and salvage some of his crop, he said. But some farms with no freeze protection lost buds, flowers and berries.
“They’re not going to be able to do anything,” Koukoulis said.
Some areas looking good
Eduardo Campos, director of perishable logistics for Customized Brokers, a division of Miami-based Crowley Fresh, also was in Argentina’s Tucuman growing region this summer.
“The fields that I saw were beautiful,” he said. “The fruit looked really good and almost ready to be harvested.”
Growers were excited about the weather and the plant reaction, he said.
“The weather has been great, so they are expecting a very nice season this year with very good quality,” he said.
The Giumarra Cos., Los Angeles, expects its first Argentina blueberries to arrive the last week of September or the first week of October, which is the normal kickoff time, said Tom Richardson, vice president of global development.
The start date was expected to be earlier than usual until the frost hit and took out about 10% of the company’s early production.
Other than the freezes, growing conditions have been good, he said.
Prices expected to be higher
Prices of Argentina blueberries will be significantly higher this fall compared with those of domestic summer berries.
“For the month of July, (prices were) significantly lower than where they had been the last couple of years, with a lot more volume,” said Jim Roberts, vice president of sales for Naturipe Farms LLC, Estero, Fla.
Because of the large U.S. crop, some prices were below the cost of the harvest, he said.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, on Sept. 9, flats of 12 1-pint cups medium-large blueberries from Michigan were shipping at $28.50-33; 6-ounce cups of mediums, $18.50-22.50.
That scenario shouldn’t affect the Argentina deal, though, because retailers know costs for imports go up, Roberts said.
In the U.S., most markets are only one to three days away from domestic production areas by truck, he said, compared with 5,000 miles away by air for Argentinean imports.
“Retailers understand that logistics drive higher costs during the winter time, and there is less production,” he said.
Tight supplies, but no loss of quality
Koukoulis was not confident volume out of Argentina would be as strong this season as last.
“I think the supply will be lucky to get to last year’s number,” he said.
The problems suffered by growers should not impact quality of exported berries, he said. Cull rates will be up, and unfit berries will be sent to processing.
“The package you’re going to see in the store will be outstanding,” he said.
The strong U.S. summer crop creates demand that bodes well for the import season, Roberts said.
“When it transitions from domestics to imports, even though costs go up, consumers will continue to consume blueberries if they were having a good experience with them,” he said.