High-yielding new blueberry varieties offset lost acreage

09/12/2011 01:00:00 AM
Tara Schupner

In the past six years, blueberry plantings in the province of Concordia have fallen from 809 acres to 444 acres.

Despite that drop, Argentina’s blueberry exports to the U.S. have tripled in the past five years.

“I’ve seen the industry rise and fall over the past 12 years,” Ulises Sabato, owner of Concordia-based Blueberries S.A., said of Argentina’s shrinking number of growers.

Sabato, one of the country’s largest grower-shippers and a partner in Weston, Fla.-based importer Fresh Results LLC, said roughly half of Concordia’s growers have closed their doors, and growers in Buenos Aires have suffered similar attrition.

A mix of poor weather and a weak economy have hampered growers, Sabato said.

While those conditions were beyond the industry’s control, Sabato said some growing operations failed because they had older varieties with lower yields than their newer counterparts.

“Ultimately, to survive,” he said, “growers are going to have to plant better varieties.”

Many growers are doing just that, replacing varieties such as O’Neal with Emerald, Jewel and Star.

“Argentina has replanted a lot of varieties,” said Keith Mixon, president of SunnyRidge Farm Inc., Winter Haven, Fla.

“That’s part of the attrition. If you don’t produce the right tons per acre, you need to invest in more or convert to something else. You’ve seen some growers get out because of that.”

Sabato said that in Tucuman, a newer growing area where there are fewer growers and the newer varieties are prevalent, attrition has not been as great.

Despite the fact that many growers have left the deal, Argentina’s overall volume is growing.

Argentina is expected to produce 19,000 tons of blueberries this year, according to the Argentinian Blueberry Committee.

That’s up from last year’s reported 16,500 tons.

Joe Barsi, vice president of business development for California Giant Berry Farms, said the Watsonville-based company expects to increase its import volume from the country by 30% or more.

Part of the reason for the increase, he said, is that young plantings in Tucuman are coming into full production.

The payoff might not be exactly what growers have been hoping for. A weak U.S. dollar and inflation near 30% have hampered growers, who export the vast majority of their crop to the U.S. and Europe.

“High-quality, low-cost producers are going to be the ones who survive,” Barsi said.

Janice Honigberg, president of Washington, D.C.-based Sun Belle Inc., said that some varieties have been taken out entirely, while some growers have sold or leased their land.

“Over time, many growers have replaced older varieties with newer, early varieties with better yields,” she said. “There are also a number of varieties which are being tested. Much of the acreage of our growers consists of newer varieties.”

Being early is important for Argentina because growers want to stay clear of the considerable volume of Chile, which overlaps with the tail end of Argentina’s season.

Mixon said Argentina’s peak volume ships by air cargo between Oct. 31 and the end of November. Chilean fruit, which ships by boat, begins arriving at U.S. ports by Dec. 1, and volume intensifies around Christmas.

“Flying fruit is a pricey exercise,” Mixon said. “The cost of freight is high compared to Chilean fruit shipped by boat. But Argentina’s peak volume comes in a four-week period when there isn’t much competition. They don’t want to wait for Chilean fruit to start arriving.”

In addition to increased yields and proper timing, Eric Crawford, president of Fresh Results LLC, said that newer varieties such as Emerald are crunchier, sweeter and larger than the varieties that are being phased out.

“These varieties perform well at retail,” he said. “They travel well. They look nice at retail, and demand is increasing.”



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