Blueberry supplies are tight and the blame can be largely laid on COVID-19.
“It’s affecting supply and operations in the U.S.—it’s just affecting the business at the moment,” says Luciano Fiszman of Redondo Beach, CA-based Gourmet Trading Co.
Left to right: Gourmet Trading's Scott Hulsey, Luciano Fiszman and Michelle Carpenter.
Fiszman notes that currently, Peruvian supplies have slowed down which is typical as have Mexico’s shipments, which also matches historical movement. “But this is the heart of Chile’s season and the numbers are down. And it has nothing to do with a lack of berries on bushes or a weather event,” says Fiszman.
Chile’s labor issues
In Chile, growers are contending with labor issues. “People are sick or terrified of contracting COVID-19 and some people are receiving government subsidies. And if they went to the farms to pick, they’d lose that benefit,” says Fiszman. He also notes that especially at the start of the season, blueberry growers lost labor to cherry crops given cherries are more lucrative to pick.
The consequence? “Potentially there’s more fruit that will be picked late and it will finish in the process market,” says Fiszman. “And a lot of fruit will just go to waste and not make it into the fresh market. If it was not picked on time, it won’t come later.” He notes that Chile has largely two peaks: the first is in the Central North region of the country where earlier varieties are picked while the second is the Central South region with later varieties. “And I think we missed that first peak. We’re still going to see that second peak but that first peak went by without the market noticing it,” he says, adding that Chile is largely the country supplying blueberries in North America and will be until Mexico. By Valentine’s Day, Mexico will likely start picking up in volume as it heads to peak supplies in March/April.
Back in North America, a port problem also seems to be hindering fruit movement. “Both East and West ports are working at capacity, but the capacity is lower than usual because they have less staff working which is again due to COVID-19,” says Fiszman. He notes that the West Coast ports are more affected than the East Coast ones. “But that’s also why the market right now is tight on fruit,” says Fiszman.
Demand in the meantime is…well, a rollercoaster. “It’s been hard to forecast the crop but harder to forecast demand. Restaurants are opening and closing and varying state to state. People are in a lockdown but not everyone at once,” says Fiszman. He does note that interest in pack styles has changed and consumers are leaning towards larger ones currently. “People are purchasing them to eat at home rather than as a snack as they go to work which means bigger pack styles,” says Fiszman.
Demand in organics also continues to be strengthen. “The big stores want them and they want them year-round,” says Fiszman. “The price is more competitive which helps everybody. But if a consumer buys organics, they’ll pay the extra dollars, but you have to deliver quality to their table to have them come back and buy them again.”
All of this has left pricing continue to move. “Two weeks ago, the price was in one place and it moved and two weeks from now it will move again. Pricing has moved in different patterns this year than it typically does,” says Fiszman. “November/December price was below historical levels and now January looks promising. But that’s also a reflection of the market being tight.”