John Giles Promar

Chile’s national blueberry committee held its annual conference in Santiago towards the end of May, with a wide range of speakers from across the demand chain talking to a packed audience of 400 growers, exporters and other industry stakeholders. These are some of my own personal reflections of the two-day event, at which I was fortunate to be one of the speakers.

This is an industry which has gone from strength to strength in the last ten years. Exports of Chilean blueberries to the EU and US have been booming and the recent link-up with McDonald’s in the US shows how much opportunity there is still to come. Exports to emerging markets like Russia, China and the Middle East are taking shape and the opening of the Korean market offers another significant opportunity. Fruit planting is still on the increase and the country’s R&D programme looks strong. As is often the case in Chile, there were numerous references to the high level of co-operation between growers, exporters, the main trade association Asoex and government export agency Prochile. It all looks pretty good from afar.

This event was, however, far from a self-congratulatory pat on the back. There is concern about the impact on shopping and supply-demand chain behaviour as a result of the cautious economic recovery in North America and the huge uncertainty we are seeing in the EU market as a result of the euro crisis. Chile is also well aware of potential competition from other Central and Latin American growers in Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico and possibly Peru too. So why not invite them along to your conference and find out what they are doing? That is what happened – a sign of a confident industry.

There are worries too over issues such as seasonal peaks in production, water availability, labour costs and the high price of energy for cooling, packing and international distribution. Smaller farms are sometimes finding it difficult to break even. Yet, for all these concerns, it struck me that this industry is well organised and has a strong sense of its future direction.

Of course, blueberries can play strongly on the ‘super fruit’ image and Chile has strong natural advantages when it comes to phytosanitary issues. But there are other products that come into the super fruit category and all things have a natural lifecycle. Blueberries taste great, they are versatile and are riding a huge wave of positive publicity and exposure that other fruit and wider food categories can only dream about. Add in some really good growers, sharp exporters and a young ‘up and at them’ trade association, and it all makes for a persuasive argument as to why this industry is set for more success. Not least, market penetration is still relatively low and all the evidence is that if you can get consumers to try the fruit they come back for more. What a great position to be in.