Chilean blueberry suppliers are gearing up for a record season, a larger standard pack size and logistical improvements to ensure consistent quality.

Brian Bocock, vice president of sales for Naturipe Farms LLC, Naples, Fla., said good weather and relatively young fields reaching maturation means exponential increases in yield.

“As volume increases, you get to better price points for the consumer,” he said. “We are seeing good things for consumer value propositions and returns to grower.”

Eric Crawford, owner of Fresh Results LLC, Weston, Fla., said his growers expected the second week of November to start flying 6-ounce clamshells from Santiago.

“Overall volumes are up about 30% this year,” he said. “What’s really amazing is that we know the financial situation in the United States — the economy is poor, unemployment is high and we are still seeing very high demand.”

Crawford noted that cases of 4.4 equivalents from Argentina have remained at $40.

“That in and of itself is a little bit telling,” he explained. “The volumes are starting to come in, and the markets are still holding very, very well.”

Crawford believes that such high sustained prices mean demand is up and prices may remain high enough for to sustain flying in product from Chile.

“The growers out of Chile are making a conscious decision to load on vessels rather than to fly because airfreight is so high. If the market looks like it may support the high-priced fruit, we may see a lot more fruit coming out of air from Chile than we have in the past,” he said.

Noting the increased demand for blueberries, even at higher prices, he added, “Shoppers and consumers have made a conscious decision on what items to cut back on, and they have made room in their budget to afford blueberries.”

Joe Barsi, director of business development at California Giant Inc., Watsonville,  is not as optimistic about price-point and demand. A recent freeze in Region VII and a week to 10-day delay is pushing prices out of the range of some consumers.

“Prices are a little bit higher, but I would say that the economy is having a little bit of impact on the marketplace,” he said. “Blueberries this time of year are more of a luxury item.”

Barsi said less-than-expected volume from Argentina and Uruguay and Chile’s slow start also are creating an unexpected break in the supply chain.

“It has created some challenges in the marketplace,” he said. “Everybody thought there was going to be more fruit than there has been. A lot of programs were set up in advance expecting that fruit.”

Overcoming quality issues

In the past two Chilean blueberry seasons, suppliers have struggled to prevent lower quality product from reaching retail shelves. This year, a variety of logistical and quality control efforts have been put into place.

“Especially two years ago, when blueberry volumes really started taking off, it kind of surprised a lot of people with the new volumes,” said Mario Flores, blueberry product manager for Naturipe Farms. “I remember when there were shortages of containers, and that made a big issue.”

Flores said there is no such shortage any more, and any inadequate container availability now is a result of poor planning.

Crawford said similar logistical problems related to inadequate cooling facilities result when shippers rely on third-party facilities, which can become booked during peak times.

“A lot of growers use third-party cooling facilities. At peak, that’s where you run into problems of having enough cooling capacity,” he said. “We have made sure that our infrastructure needs always kept pace with our production, and we have a very good balance right now.”

Bocock pointed to timing and communication with retailers regarding promotions as tactics for assuring higher returns and better consistency this year.

“Frankly, growers out of Chile in late December and January had a very difficult year. So how do you change that around is to change the value proposition to the consumer,” he said. “You have the right packs out at the right time, promote it at the right price. You make sure you know when it is coming in, and you are guiding the retailer in North America so they know when to promote.”

California Giant’s Barsi said because of inconsistent quality the last couple of years companies have tightened up their specifications and put more emphasis on quality in the industry.

“All the major exporters have really worked together to make sure that the U.S. receives high quality fruit this year,” he said.

Robert Verloop, vice president of marketing at Naturipe Farms, said Naturipe is focusing on training shippers and loaders to establish more accountability.

“What we have done is communicate throughout the entire chain, sending the right fruit to the right customers,” he said.
When quality was insufficient, Naturipe pulled back and worked with retailers, he said, but this year is different.

“The amount of available fruit that is there has grown so much that when there are quality problems in one area, we are able to draw form another area.,” Verloop said.

The newly established Chilean Blueberry Committee is helping to bring together a fragmented marketplace for greater consistency in the way the industry approaches the U.S. and European market, he added.

Other berries

Crawford said demand for other berries like raspberries, blackberries and strawberries will continue to increase despite the economic situation in the U.S.

Crawford said he expects Fresh Results’ raspberry program in Chile to increase by up to 20% despite competition from Mexico. He added that the company is working hard to introduce new varieties, but this season plans to continue importing Heritage out of Chile.

“We harvest raspberries in three different regions, starting in November and going almost up into March,” he said.