South African blueberry production aims to close local supply gap

The South African blueberry season seems early this year, but as an industry expert points out: “It’s not unusually early, compared to last year, but there is definitely more fruit, and earlier in the season. It’s a mixture of earlier genetics, different cultivation techniques and climate.” 

There has been a brisk increase in blueberry plantings over the last couple of years, among which early-bearing varieties for this time of year when there’s not a lot of blueberries available on the market. Growing blueberries under tunnels and pruning manipulation are ways employed to force an earlier crop. Moreover, a significant amount of new blueberry orchards are situated in areas whose conditions provide for earlier fruit, typically in the northern parts of the country, and as far north as Zambia and Zimbabwe, although the latter is just marginally earlier than South Africa.

Blueberry growers in the provinces of Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Northwest have started selectively harvesting, some expecting to start full-time harvesting in two to three weeks’ time. One blueberry grower whose first harvest was last year, tells FreshPlaza that this year the taste has improved along with the maturity of the plants. “The fruit is very early this season. Last year we only started harvesting in week 29.”

Harvesting in the Western and Southern Cape has also commenced, helped along by the cold fronts moving over the province, aiding colour development and ripening.

Blueberry exports from South Africa will commence later this month.

Local blueberries now available for almost ten months of the year
At the moment blueberries are harvested locally for nine to ten months of the year, where around six years ago local blueberries were only available for three or four months. There is a push to close the local supply gap running from the end of March, through April and into the beginning of May.

The holy grail would be a twelve month blueberry production and, to that end, some producers are experimenting with pruning techniques. However, obtaining a blueberry harvest during April and May would be technically and horticulturally very challenging. Industry experts reckon that the next window to be closed up would probably be March. 

“A May harvest would be at the expense of September, which provides a good export window for the South African industry and the month everyone’s aiming at,” reckons a blueberry grower. “So one would have to weigh up whether it’s worth sacrificing the volumes of September to get a crop in May.”

For the time being, while domestic production is unable to supply South African consumers right through the year, developments are afoot to open up new import markets, although a lot of the import activity of previous years has made way for local supply. 

Currently imports from Poland and New Zealand, apart from Zimbabwe, supplement local blueberry supplies in South Africa.

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