A chill has been blowing through Argentinaâs blueberry industry the last couple of years, and this season may be worse yet, according to suppliers.
âThis past August has been the coldest August in history for Concordia and Tucuman (Argentinaâs two earliest blueberry regions),â said Ulises Sabato, owner of Blueberries SA in Concordia and partner in Fresh Results LLC in Weston, Fla. âWe had 25 frost controls during the month, between mid-July to the end of August. Thatâs a huge number.â
In a frost-control procedure, the fruit is sprayed with water to seal the berries in a frozen state of no colder than 32 degrees.
âThe most successful farms are the ones that have frost control,â said Sabato, who added that his company will ship as much as 20% of Argentinaâs total expected volume of 20 million pounds this year.
Many growers have no frost protection, especially in Tucuman, which has a tropical climate.
âIt actually snowed 4 to 5 inches in Tucuman â thatâs like snow in Miami,â Sabato said. âI donât think it ever snowed there before.â
What it did was wreck much of the early fruit there, Sabato said.
âThe fruit that was supposed to come in early to mid-September is mostly gone,â Sabata said. âTheir earliest fruit will almost coincide with Concordia. Growers in Tucuman were counting on that two- or three-week period in September to make most of their money.â
It also likely will leave a gap in supplies in the U.S., with Michigan and British Columbia winding down earlier than usual, Sabato said.
A similar scenario played out at the start of the 2009 season, ultimately forcing some growers out of the deal, said Janice Honigberg, president of Washington, D.C.-based Sun Belle Inc.
âI believe growers that were closer to the mountains were badly hurt,â Honigberg said. âThe upshot is that it will be starting at the beginning of October.â
Cool weather also has affected some of the crop in the Concordia region, south of Tucuman.
âI donât think theyâve had the damaging freezes, but it will probably start in the second week of October,â Honigberg said.
Dave Bowe, owner of Daveâs Specialty Imports Inc., Coral Spring, Fla., agreed with that assessment.
âArgentina is going to be a little bit delayed,â he said. âTheyâve had some freeze damage in the Tucuman area, so supplies are going to be down a little bit. But overall, the weather has not been conducive.â
The deal usually gets under way in the latter part of September.
The typical volume, according to suppliers in the U.S., is about 13,000 tons. Chile, by comparison, likely will ship in the 40,000-50,000-ton range, they say.
At the start of last yearâs Argentina deal, Oct. 26, 2009, flats of 12 4.4-ounce lidded cups of large-size Argentine berries were $46-50.
Bowe said itâs difficult to prognosticate how much volume Argentina will produce this year.
âArgentina in the past two years really has had an overabundance of blueberries from the north of Tucuman area down through Concordia down to Buenos Aires,â he said.
âLast season, they had an overabundance of berries. However, they also had terrible weather, especially with rain. This year, we understand some of the growers will not harvest this year â¦ Based on Tucuman being short on supply and possibly others, based on what weâve seen, we think production in Argentina will be lower than in the last two years.â
But quality shouldnât be an issue for the berries that do make it to U.S. retailers, Bowe said.
âIf the product does look good, they will still have sufficient supplies to take care of everyone theyâre familiar with taking care of,â he said. âHowever, it could overlap in Chile, if Chile were to begin early or even if Chile begins at the regular time.â
Keith Mixon, president of Winter Haven, Fla.-based Sunny Ridge Farm Inc., said the bad weather shouldnât be a major problem, at least once the deal gets going.
âI expect to see a good, viable crop, although somewhat reduced,â he said.
Whatever volume comes out of Argentina, marketers say theyâll be ready to promote it.
âWe really donât have a firm plan yet; weâre obviously going to have an Argentina deal,â said Cindy Jewell, marketing director for California Giant Inc., Watsonville. âWe just donât know if the acreage is going to be the same or how that will all play into the total blueberry program we have. But Argentina is definitely a part of the deal.â
California Giant has procured âconsistentâ volumes from Argentina in recent years, and Jewell said she saw no reason to expect anything different this time.
âWe try to keep our program consistent from year to year so we know what weâre going to have,â she said. âWe pre-sell a lot of it. You donât want a lot of surprises, either way more or way less than youâre forecasting.â
Bruce Turner, head of operations with Giumarra VBM International Berry LLC, Wenatchee, Wash., said some berries from Tucuman should emerge unscathed by the weather problems.
âTheyâve had cold and ice, and itâs been 4 to 7 degrees below zero centigrade, but some areas of Tucuman actually have some microclimates, and we have some acreage that has absolutely no damage and some thatâs maybe 50% of the production that was lost,â he said. âWeâre lucky. Weâve got a fair amount of acreage in one of those zones. Overall, what weâre hearing Tucuman will be down 50%.â
Brian Bocock, vice president of product management, for the Grand Junction, Mich., office of Naturipe Farms LLC, Naples, Fla., predicted the first shipments of blueberries from Argentina should arrive in limited quantities by the third week of September.
âThere wonât be any appreciable volume until, maybe, Oct. 15 or 20,â he said.