Some time has elapsed since, at the end of the nineties, some private initiatives gave way to the introduction of Cherry crops in Neuquén. In that time, however, the Patagonian region became one of the leading producing regions in the country and the largest exporter of cherries in Argentina.
In the past 20 years, Argentine exports of fresh cherries increased 12.4 times from 142 tons to 1,759 tons (1994/2013), having peaks of up to 2,732 tons (2010), and ranked tenth in the income generated by fresh fruit exports for the country, with 8.61 million dollars (2013).
The sector's growth was reflected not only by the increase in export volumes as, in the same period, the FOB value in Buenos Aires more than doubled from an average of U.S. $2.30 to $4.90 per kilo of exported cherry.
The regional harvest extends from October and November, with heavy concentrations in December, and continues throughout January with cherries from southern Patagonia and, in some seasons, as is the case of the Los Antiguos and Trevalga, continues until early February.
This allows the sector to address international markets with early fruit, for which they get great prices, supplying the year-end holidays and the Chinese New Year, a period that is usually set between January and February and is the best time of the year to sell cherries in that market.
Patagonia has become the main exporter of fresh cherries in Argentina as it producers more than 70% of the year's production, and, of that volume, over 45% comes from the provinces of Neuquén and Río Negro.
During the 2012/2013 season, an atypical year due to the adverse weather effects that affected productivity in all the regions, 99% of the exports originated from Patagonia, and 57% came from the Northern Patagonia.
Unlike other regions, the Northern Patagonia maintains a growing trend, increasing its planted area every year and, according to estimates, the region will be producing between 5,000 and 7,000 tons for export in the year 2018.
Nearly 70% of the fruit exported from the Patagonian region is shipped by air from the Ezeiza International Airport. The Northern Patagonia ships 47% of its total exports this way, the largest national volume. Thus, it is of the upmost importance to have direct flights abroad from the international airport of the city of Neuquén, which would accelerate the entry of these fruits to markets a few days before the Chilean cherries and get the best prices.
The region accounts for 84% of the sea shipments with fruit that comes mainly from the provinces of Chubut and Santa Cruz. The region uses maritime logistics in search of the best international niche for late fruit where prices significantly improve (an average of $6/kg and $7,3/kg FOB Buenos Aires for fresh cherries in February 2011 and 2012, respectively).
The region accounts for 49% of land exports abroad, with fruit that comes exclusively from the provinces of Neuquen and Rio Negro and that is destined to Mercosur.
Alternative and sustainable development
Northern Patagonia's participation in the sector has increased every year and in the last campaign, 2012/2013, it accounted for 4.83 million dollars of the 8.61 million dollars generated by the export of cherries.
According to SENASA North Patagonia, the region only has 672 hectares, some of which are already productive and others that are about to become productive. The sector employs more than 300 permanent workers and, in average, creates about 10 temporary jobs per hectare during high season (mainly for picking and packing); a number that is increasing every year because of the increase in productivity and the addition of new plantings.
The cherry industry has become a productive diversification alternative complementary to the traditional fruit production of the region. It complements labour as its season adjusts to that of other fruits, such as pome and stonefruit, which extends the occupational window of the transitional staff and incorporates female staff.
There is also great potential for the industrial development of the fruit that can't be exported because of its quality and that can be processed so that it has an added value at origin.
The major market dynamics are redirecting the destinations of Argentine cherries towards the Asian markets. In recent years, Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, India, Singapore and Hong Kong have become the new destination markets for Patagonian cherries.
The Asian market, especially China, is very attractive because of its high demand and because it has the highest market prices.
Chile, the largest producer and exporter of cherries in the southern hemisphere, exported 68,313 tons in the last season (2013/2014), 74.4% of which was sent to the Chinese market.
In this context, the Patagonian cherries are competing at a disadvantage, as they still don't have a phytosanitary protocol that would allow them direct entry to the Chinese market.
Currently, Argentine cherries enter China through Hong Kong, which increases distribution and logistics costs and involves paying a high tariff. Meanwhile, Chile can export directly to the Canton market and, starting 2015, the Chilean exporters won't have to pay tariffs, as a result of the free trade agreement signed by both countries; a clear disadvantage for the Argentine cherry producers.