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The southern hemisphere may be thousands of miles away, but come the autumn, geography means little as retail shelves are packed with strawberries, raspberries and blueberries from Chile, Argentina and South Africa.Many of the UK’s larger berry companies have joined forces with southern-hemisphere producers in recent years, and have long argued the benefits of offering year-round berries. With demand showing few signs of abating, there is still significant room for growth. “Handling berries on a year-round basis not only gives you presence with your customers, but gives BerryWorld and our UK producers the confidence to grow in line with the market,” says BerryWorld’s Dave Ashton.BerryWorld has two principle suppliers in the southern hemisphere. “Our supply base is very mature, with our oldest supplier working with us for the past 13 years,” says Ashton. “They have supplied all our needs in the past, and there are long-term plans in place.”
Indeed, BerryWorld is cranking up its imports and says its volumes of southern-hemisphere berries will increase by around 25 per cent in 2007-08.“Our South African grower exports around 80 per cent to the UK, and plans are in place to continue at this level over the coming years,” Ashton reveals.The Summerfruit Company is also looking ahead, and its growers will be working out of new state-of-the-art facilities in both Argentina and Chile this season. According to Ian Waller, The Summerfruit Company’s strategic alliance with Sunnyridge Farm will enable it to more than double its imports from Argentina, Chile and Mexico.“Growers have long-term plans for the UK, Europe and the US, which gives them the confidence to invest in their business,” he adds.
The Summerfruit Company says logistics and a growing world market represent its main challenges. “Space on airlines continues to be a problem as production increases,” Waller explains. “The move into seafreight is well underway, but introduces constant pressure on importers to ensure that the right quality berry reaches the consumer.”In addition, Waller says a strong pound has enabled producers to achieve very attractive retail price points and promotions for southern-hemisphere fruit. “However, if the exchange rate moves against us, the situation could become very interesting,” he argues.Well Pict European South Africa supplies strawberries and raspberries to the UK, and, according to the company’s Chris Charter, strong demand for southern-hemisphere berries has been driven by a number of factors, most notably the quality and varietal selection available.“Well Pict is the only berry company supplying the strawberry variety Sabrosa to the UK at this time of year from South Africa,” Charter says.”When questioned about competition from other southern-hemisphere berry producers, Charter is unfazed. He says: “Australia and South America have other preferential markets – South East Asia and North America – and the distance from Europe is a restricting factor.
According to Taylor, South African blueberries already enjoy strong demand in the UK and the season to date has been particularly favourable. Indeed, the country’s fruit has gained market share, due to the shortage of fruit from Argentina.However, Taylor warns this situation will not last and prices are already falling quickly. “Argentina will have blueberries in a condensed season, although volumes will still be well down on the estimates at the start of the season,” he tells FPJ.Nevertheless, Taylor says South Africa is already very competitive and he claims that the taste of its berries is generally superior, especially with the new varieties growers are handling from Florida.When it comes to blueberries, Chile by far dominates the southern-hemisphere scene.
It is the world’s third-largest blueberry producer, growing more than 15,000 tonnes of the little blue fruit a year. Many producers, including Entrerios Farms, are predicting gains for this season and beyond.Entrerios Farms anticipates increasing its production to 1,000t this season, says the company’s Jorge Bawlitza Muñoz. While the US remains its major market, the UK and Europe are also coming under the spotlight.Muñoz is also excited about future possibilities. He explains: “Currently, other southern-hemisphere countries can complement Chile in the periods that Chile doesn’t have enough fruit production. But soon some Chilean growers will be able to supply the international markets to cover all needs between the end and the beginning of European production.” However, it is unlikely Argentinean growers will give up their market share without a fight.
Although the country has faced tough conditions this season, blueberries are an extremely profitable export crop, with 90 per cent of Argentinean production shipped abroad. Although the US imports around 66 per cent of total exports, other major markets include the UK, Europe and Japan.Argentina’s rising production has been well documented, and the US department of agriculture (USDA) says output in the short term is forecast to continue growing to at least 2011, when all of the current 3,400 hectares planted should be bearing their maximum potential.
Production is concentrated in three regions: Entre Rios in north-eastern Argentina, the province of Buenos Aires and the Patagonian valleys. According to Ashton, Argentina has endured its worst weather for many years, with a high percentage of early fruit being struck in the north. In the Buenos Aires area, orchards were also hit with hail, with some growers again losing considerable volumes.However, Ashton says volumes returned to normal in early November and promotions will kick in as planned over the coming weeks.According to the USDA, Argentina and Chile are only really in competition during December, as the vast majority of Argentine blueberries are harvested between September and December, while 81 per cent of Chilean blueberries are harvested between December and January.Indeed, the USDA says many Chilean blueberry growers have planted in Argentina to take advantage of its earlier harvest. By 2011, the USDA anticipates that Argentina will enjoy an earlier window. “Harvesting of Argentine blueberries will be concentrated more in October, when recent plantations in Tucuman, which are harvested in late September and October, mature to reach their maximum yield potential,” the organisation says.
Due to Mother Nature’s unpredictability, sources say it is worth sourcing blueberries from a wide range. “I think that given the very unusual weather patterns we saw in Argentina and the subsequent world shortage of blueberries, all customers will look for a geographical spread of supply, and South Africa is extremely important in giving this spread as are Australia, Mexico and other areas in South America that are under development,” Waller says.Ver nota completa