Labor concerns continue to be an issue for some Chilean companies as they deal with strikes and limited workers.
“Labor is a concern as growers try to recruit enough hand harvesters for the season,” said Mario Flores, director of blueberry product management for Salinas, Calif.-based Naturipe Farms LLC.
Flores mentioned the pull of competing industries as adding extra pressure.
“Other industries such as mining and construction take away from the labor pool,” he said.
In addition, Flores said there is still a concern of labor strikes going into the season.
“We have already seen a strike by customs officers that slowed the rate of fruit able to get out of the country, and there was another strike by truck drivers who transport fruit from coolers to the airport or port,” Flores said, mentioning they can’t completely rule out other strikes for the upcoming season.
These interruptions impact all aspects of the deal.
“Anytime you have a disruption in distribution with fruit waiting too long at the port, it creates quality issues,” said Evan Myers, director of South American imports for Vancouver, British Columbia-based The Oppenheimer Group.
As a result, entire shipment schedules can change.
“That fruit that has been sitting at the port too long can force South American partners to take alternative orders. If a vessel is there and loading for Asia, companies may divert fruit to that market because it’s closer and faster,” Myers said.
The shipping delays can also cause undesirable market fluctuations.
“It can create spikes in pricing. All of a sudden, we might have shortage of fruit if there is a strike, and then right after that, we might have a plethora of fruit that requires the market to go down. Those fluctuations aren’t really good. It’s hard for retailers to set a price,” Myers said.
Highly perishable products like cherries, blueberries, and other sensitive fruits are more affected. Something like apples or kiwi or plums might be a little more durable, Myers said.
“An extra 10 days at port before a peach or nectarine is shipped will really affect the shelf life,” he said.
More labor-intensive crops also tend to be more affected.
“Labor problems affect everything but mostly the labor-intensive commodities with a long season. For fruits like blueberries that aren’t storage items, you need a big crew to handle the acreage,” said Chris Kragie, deciduous fruit manager for Madera, Calif.-based Western Fresh Marketing.
Dirk Winkelmann, director, Nathel International, Pittsgrove, N.J., said he doesn’t expect labor to be as big of a concern as it has been in the past.
“It’s an ongoing issue in Chile, but it doesn’t look like it will majorly affect this season,” he said.
Karen Brux, managing director of the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association, San Carlos, Calif., said solutions are hopefully in place for progress moving forward.
“As an association we have taken a very active role to protect the interests of growers and exporters and at the same time, collaborate with government authorities to reach a mutually beneficial solution to the specific issues that caused the strike last year,” she said.
Efforts are underway to help prevent future issues by creating a new legal framework that will provide a long-term solution to the port workers’ requests, Brux said.
Another main concern for Chilean grower-shippers is the lack of water in some regions.
“Outside of labor, the biggest concern is water,” he said.
The hardest-hit areas are in the north, but if there isn’t more rainfall soon, growers say the entire nation will begin to really feel the effects.
“Chile has been battling a drought in the north for years, which has caused a drop in production,” Winkelmann said.
Kragie said Chile’s water problems are similar to those growers are facing in the U.S.
“They don’t have enough water storage and too much runs off into the ocean. And copper mines or other industries are fetching a higher price for water than fresh crops,” he said.