Argentina blueberry prospects appear solid for the September through December season, marketers say.
In the September through December availability window, shipments to the U.S. are typically heaviest in the October-November period.
In 2017, Argentina exported about $58 million in fresh blueberry exports to the U.S., compared with $79.7 million in 2016 and $62.5 million in 2016. U.S. imports of organic Argentina blueberries totaled $7.7 million in 2017, up from $5.6 million in 2016.
For 2018, Tom Richardson, senior vice president of global development for The Giumarra Cos., said the crop looks good.
“The season is looking good with a winter that provided a good number of chill hours, so the plants are looking good as we near the harvest in Tucuman and Salta where the first exports come from,” Richardson said.
Richardson indicated the total crop is not greatly changed from a year ago.
First arrivals were expected to arrive by air around the first week of September, with shipments continuing in early December.
“The quality of Argentina fruit is going to be outstanding and the taste is really, really good,” said Teddy Koukoulis, director of blueberry operations for Wish Farms, Plant City, Fla.
Luciano Fiszman, blueberry category manager for the Los Angeles, Calif.-based Gourmet Trading Co., said the season looks good, with a favorable exchange rate expected to benefit exporters.
“It has been a normal winter after a warm fall in the growing regions,” he said.
However, spring temperatures were cooler than normal, he said.
“Hopefully the cooler spring allows a long season with good quality as well,” Fiszman said.
Argentina’s blueberry exports to the U.S. are expected near 11,000 metric tons, similar to a year ago, said Pier Paolo Giua, representative with Argentina exporter Hortifrut Expofresh SA.
However, Argentina will ship more organic blueberries this year, and increased volume of blueberries by sea container compared with a year ago.
Giua said Argentina is anticipating its first exports to China between September and December this year.
Argentina has typically exported about 65% of its total volume to the U.S. That could decline to about 55% this year, Giua said.
“Additional volumes coming to North America from Peru are also forcing the Argentina producer to examine the business model and target markets,” Richardson said. “It is certainly not ‘business as usual’ in our dynamic industry.”
Because of bigger volumes of U.S. blueberry imports from Mexico, Peru, Chile and Argentina, exporters are moving to bigger containers for export, Giua said.
Fiszman said the trend is toward larger packs.
Several years ago, fall blueberry shipments were dominated by 12 packs of 4.4-ounce containers, while today shipments are dominated by 12 packs of 6 ounces.
More retailers are promoting 18-ounce containers, and the pack is growing in popularity.
Fruit sorting and packaging also has become much more efficient, he said
“There is now new technology that allows (packers) to check every single berry,” he said.
Technology that uses pictures and laser technology to check berries from multiple angles can discriminate for firmness, color, sizing and defects, he said.
“It is impressive and it helps to make a better pack,” Fiszman said.
Organic blueberry production is on the rise in Argentina, Richardson said.
“The growers and exporters there see this niche in the market as an opportunity for them as global interest in organic fruit is still increasing,” he said.
Giua said Argentina expects 70% growth of organic volume in 2018 compared with 2017, but from a very low base. Argentina expects to export about 1.500 metric tons of organic blueberries to the U.S. compared with 900 tons shipped in 2017.
“Definitely the organic blueberry production is on the rise and we expect a big growth of volume especially in the area of Tucuman where most of the volume come from,” Giua said.
Koukoulis said rising volume and competition from Peru could encourage more Argentina blueberry growers to focus on organics.
Argentina exporters will be sending more fruit to the U.S. by boat through Chile this year, which has a transit time of 17 days, Giua said.
Industry forecasts predict about 35% of Argentina blueberries will be exported to the U.S. by sea containers this year.
“In terms of post-harvest we have been working at field level to make very good quality arrivals by boat, Giua said.
Koukoulis said the addition of Savannah as a port to receive Argentina blueberries is expected to increase shipments by sea.
Fruit shipped by vessel can be cold treated instead of fumigated. Since fumigation isn’t allowed for organic fruit, cold treatment is important for that category to grow, he said.