Chilean blueberry export volume in 2018-19 will be down slightly from last year’s record levels, but the North American market will be well-supplied.
“We’re coming from a record year last season in terms of production and exports so this season we are forecasting a little bit less volume in fresh — about 5% less compared with the volume than we had last season,” said Andres Armstong, executive director of the Chilean Blueberry Committee.
Chile has about 1,300 blueberry growers, mainly located in central and southern Chile. Chile has about 100 exporters who ship a minimum of 100 metric tons, Armstrong said.
Last year’s crop experienced near perfect conditions and Chilean exporters shipped about 110,351 metric tons of fresh blueberries to all export markets. The share of exports was split 64% to North America, 24% to Europe and 12% to Asia.
For this year, Armstrong said Chilean fresh blueberry exports are forecast near 105,000 metric tons. The distribution of the crop is expected similar to a year ago, he said.
Armstrong said that first volumes out of Chile had begun by mid-October, but the peak shipping season is expected from the last week of November and through the end of February. Shipments of Chilean blueberries will continue to the end of March.
The harvest pace of the blueberry season is a little bit late compared with normal, on par with reports from other South America countries.
While some newer early varieties have contributed to a good volume start this year, the general season is expected to be a little later than normal, he said.
Chilean organic blueberry volume is trending higher, Armstrong said.
Chilean Blueberry Committee statistics show that organic blueberry volume accounted for 9.5% of total fresh export shipments or about 10,000 metric tons. Of total fresh blueberry organic exports, Armstrong said about 85% were shipped to the U.S.
Some organic acreage is not year bearing fruit or is in the process of completing the three-year transition period. That means organic volume will grow in coming years.
Chilean Blueberry Committee statistics indicated that total Chilean blueberry acreage was 38,550 acres in July 2017, of which 17% was organic production.
In the next year, Armstrong said several more growing areas in Chile could be cleared for a systems approach to pest control, meaning that fruit from those areas won’t need to be fumigated. That should serve to boost organic blueberry exports, since only fruit that has not been fumigated can be sold as organic.
“This is good news and we have the chance to avoid fumigation and really get the opportunity for organic production in areas that have been prevented from reaching the U.S. market,” Armstrong.
About 90% of Chilean blueberry volume to North America is shipped by sea container, and 10% by air.
“The trend is that we will need less airplanes in the future because supply from other countries is filling the gap,” he said.
The Chilean industry saw the most growth in years when prices were higher than in recent times.
Export competitors have filled in supply gaps and made in tougher for growers to make money, Armstrong said.
“In some areas, we have more competition, where we used to be alone,” he said. Chilean growers in regions facing more international competition could move more of their crop to the frozen blueberry market.
Last season, Chile exported about 40,000 metric tons of frozen blueberries — equal to about 40% of fresh volume.
Frozen is a good alternative when fresh growers are not in a favorable market window, Armstrong said.
Despite rising global competition — especially Peru before Chile’s season begins — Armstrong believes that the Chilean blueberry industry has a good future.
With few if any supply gaps, consumers will be able to buy and consume more fresh blueberries and find more stable pricing and consistent retail packaging options.
“Blueberry consumption is growing around the world and also in the U.S., which is the biggest market in the world,” he said. Consumers in both Europe and Asia don’t have a long history of eating blueberries, but consumption is growing steadily in those markets.
“I think there is still a lot of space for this industry to grow,” Armstrong said. New technologies for packing lines are helping shippers select better fruit and use labor more efficiently.
“People are still betting on the industry, and there is a lot of investment in new technology, in packing lines with digital systems to improve the quality and also being more labor efficient,” he said.