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Argentina: Blueberry producers bet on the U.S.

The U.S. is the world's biggest blueberry producer and consumer with more than 50% of the global market share in production and consumption. Meanwhile, Argentina started exported its first half-ton of blueberries twenty years ago, even though neighbour, Chile, is a veteran international supplier of blueberries. 

Despite this, Tucuman's Teniente Benjamin Matienzo airport, from which the fruit is being shipped to the U.S., has been overwhelmed with the amount of blueberry exports being carried out. This year's first blueberry shipment took place a month and a half ago. The shipment, 96 pallets with 38 tons, from Metan Salta and Tucumán, was made via LAN Cargo in a Boeing 767 and it was sent to St. Paul, where 90% of the total volume would be shipped to the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Germany, and the remaining 10% to the USA. 

Last year, Argentina began to venture not in America and in the European Union. The country has loaded 250 flights since their first experimental air shipment in 2006. In 2013, there were 51 different volume blueberry air shipment departures from Tucuman. 

Currently, Argentina's blueberry production and blueberry exports are going through their most prolific period; which, according to data provided by the USDA, coincides with the year's peak prices as prices in the past five weeks have been higher than USD $25 per kilo at the output port, $10 more than in April, the other peak of the year. 

"The price will remain high until the end of October. Then, there will be an overproduction so the value will go down," said Guillermo Olivera, manager of Tucuman's Blueberry Producers Association. 

He added, "Everyone knows that Argentina starts exporting their blueberries, which are premium quality and scarce, in September." 

Counter season
Blueberry cultivation in Argentina has an additional advantage: most of the harvest begins in mid-September and runs through mid-December, just as the northern hemisphere, which finished its blueberry harvest two months before, starts to run low on fresh blueberries. The local cycle begins in September in Tucuman, continues in Entre Ríos (Concordia) starting mid-October and ends in December with input from Buenos Aires. 

Argentina's blueberry production is relatively new. Most of it is exported fresh to the northern hemisphere, since it is incorporated into the diets of people in developed countries where there has been a significant change in consumption patterns and the consumption of natural products with beneficial health components is permanently increasing. 

The huge demand for blueberries has made this fruit one of the emerging crop of recent years in Argentina, to the point that it has become the seventh most exported fresh fruit behind pears, limes, apples, tangerines, oranges, and grapes. 

In that sense, SENASA estimated that Argentina exported 14,610 tons of blueberries worth USD 29.4 million during 2013. The main destinations were the United States (8,965 tons), Britain (2,163 tons) and the Netherlands (1,267 tons). 

The industry has invested heavily in the fruit's processing (sorting, cooling and disinfection) and packing. Since the harvesting and grading are carried out manually, with high requirement of staff during the harvest period, the crop is a major source of employment. According to the blueberry producers, 15,000 to 20,000 workers will be employed until the first half of November. 

A round business 
The numbers of a study conducted for the National University of La Pampa are more than attractive: the investment required for a ten-acre project can amount to $350,000 dollars. Said investment is recovered in the eighth year, and the harvest by the sixth year, which would cost $140,000 dollars, would amount to 18,400 kilos and generate $280,000 dollars in income, a margin that allows producers to deal with drops in prices of up to 40%. 

Thus, it's no wonder Argentina already has 3,500 hectares of blueberries, which have an average yield of 5,000 to 6,000 kg per hectare, and a domestic production of about 20,000 tons. 

The main exporting provinces of this fruit are Entre Rios with 40%, Tucuman with 37%, and Buenos Aires with 20%. 

This season, Tucuman expects to produce around 6,000 tons of fresh blueberries that will be shipped to the US, the UK, Europe, Canada, Hong Kong, Russia and other smaller Asian markets. 

This volume, if achieved, will represent a 42% increase over 2013, a season that was hit by frost. Estimates are the province will export 2,000 tons of frozen blueberries. 

Domestic Consumption 
80% of the blueberry production is destined for the export market, while the remaining 20%, which has been discarded because it doesn't meet international requirements, is marketed as follows: about 15 % is processed into sweets, dairy complements, cakes or juices. It is used as an ingredient in alcoholic beverages and as a colorant in food, as it is one of the few natural pigments blue. 

The remaining 5% is earmarked for the bakery sector and local institutions (mostly high-end restaurants) for the preparation of cakes and desserts. At this level it is sold frozen. There's still a long way to go in the domestic market as Argentina's population still hasn't developed consumption habits for the blue fruit and the sector hasn't been able to offer consumers affordable prices that would facilitate the penetration of fresh and frozen blueberries in the domestic market. 

Cencosud, Makro and Carrefour are the only chains that offer blueberries. 

The increase in production and the lack of a market for industrial products based on the blueberry limits the placement of the fresh fruit that's not exported. 

Source: Diario BAE

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