Juan Hirzel: "The arrival quality of Chilean fruit in the markets was lower than in previous seasons"

The speaker at the next International Seminar on Blueberries Chile comments on the current season and the future challenges for the Chilean blueberry industry.

With an extensive career as a researcher at the Institute of Agricultural Research (INIA), the Agricultural Engineer with a Master's and Doctor of Sciences, has a pragmatic view of the production of Chilean blueberries, always thriving for the continuous improvement of the industry.

The 2021/2022 season has been difficult for the berry production chain in Chile. The lack of labor, the increase in travel time to destination markets, and the rise in the price of agricultural inputs have affected the quality of the fruits, the country's competitiveness, and the utility of producers.

However, there is still room to improve logistically and technically according to the agronomist. Next, Juan Hirzel analyzes the season while identifying what can be perfected so that, during the next season, the positioning and evaluation of the Chilean fruit in the international market can be improved.

What is the main challenge for the Chilean industry to export fruit with good quality and size?

Producing a fruit that lives up to the expectations of the market, especially in the markets that have better prices for the fruit. Those markets are much further away. Then a journey must be faced in which the fruit is exposed to processes that are associated with perishability. This is very difficult, because there are a series of metabolic processes that cannot be fully controlled, and the longer the trip, the more difficult it is for this fruit to arrive safely.

What strategy can be implemented to improve the durability of the fruit in the trip?

First, select which are the varieties or genotypes that naturally present the best resistance to this trip. Then there are certain agronomic managements (...) In an INIA project (...) it has been verified that reducing the load of fruit per plant improves all quality attributes, and with it also post-harvest life.

We also can't eliminate much of the fruit, because we have to cover costs with less fruit to harvest. Then, it is necessary to estimate how much load to leave per plant or per hectare so that the business is profitable, working with the background of costs and sale price.

How has the Chilean blueberry been received in international markets during the 2021/2022 season?

We still do not have all the information, because the reports are just arriving. However, the quality of the fruit upon arrival was lower than in previous seasons, given the anomalies in transport. The shipping company had fewer ships and there was a lot of demand. For example, the exporter had the fruit, it arrived at the port and she could not load it immediately as in previous seasons, or if she started loading it, the ship did not leave immediately because she had to fill her capacity. This increased the cost of transportation, reducing the price differential for the producer. On the other hand, this adds up to days, between the departure of the fruit from the field and its arrival at its destination.

Reports already mention that the port situation may extend throughout 2022. What technical or logistical measures can be adopted to alleviate the problem?
This would be a planning strategy and possible coordination between exporting and shipping companies. Once that information is available, then a certain planning guideline can be given to the producer to indicate when to carry out their harvests, trying to coordinate that all the producers send the fruit hopefully in the same period of time, so that the filling of the boats is much faster and there is less waiting in port.

What problems does the lack of integration of the production chain between the producer and the exporter generate in the exported blueberry?

If there is no communication throughout the chain, variations in the quality of the fruit can occur that could be prevented with some management tasks. By having cross-sectional information, the producer could decide on adjusted load levels with winter pruning, fertilizer and phytosanitary applications, necessary to achieve better quality, especially in long-haul conditions.

For fruit from Chile there is very aggressive competition, especially with the neighboring country. It is not enough to offer a fruit at a competitive price, but above all this fruit must be attractive to the customer, mainly highlighting the size, firmness and phytosanitary condition.

So there has to be a lot of transfer of information from the exporter to the producer, and the producer has to be disciplined, he has to follow the guidelines given by the exporter so that his fruit meets the requirements of the destination market.

Is it possible to compete with the Peruvian blueberry market?

We cannot produce all year round, but our climate generates a period of recess for the plant, harvesting from late spring to more or less mid-summer. So when the first Chilean fruit appears, fruit is still being obtained in Peru and the competition begins. If we want to compete against this fruit, which are also varieties that could have a better caliber and therefore be more visually attractive to the final consumer, we have to prepare ourselves.

For Peru, it may be unattractive to produce fruit in January and February, and even the end of December, since competition with Chilean fruit affects the market price.

In Peru, the fruit has a well-received quality and they harvest large quantities. What is the difference in conditions with Chile?
The issue of quality is a concept that has several edges. When the quality attributes of a fruit are defined, we are talking about size, firmness, health and also flavor. The flavor of the blueberry produced in Peru is different and not comparable to the flavor of the Chilean fruit. For the conditions of Peru, the night temperatures affect the consumption of carbohydrates produced during the day, reducing the accumulation of carbohydrates and the production of organic acids in the fruit, which affects its flavor. If you do a blind tasting, and ask yourself which of the two you prefer, you will always prefer Chilean fruit.

Juan Hirzel will participate in the XVIII International Blueberry Seminar Chile 2022, next April 7 at the Monticello Conference Center. We asked the agronomist about his talk entitled "Quality attributes in blueberries and their relationship with the use of nutritional supplements"

Which nutritional supplements have been most researched and which are shown to be most effective?
Most research has focused on the management of nitrogen, potassium and calcium. The one that has presented the greatest effect is nitrogen, but in a negative way, the high doses that continue to be applied in Chile negatively affect the quality of the fruit. Calcium has a positive effect, but it depends a lot on the natural concentration of calcium that exists in the soil; and potassium affects very moderately. In many cases, for soils that have an adequate concentration of potassium, there is no response to its application in terms of production and quality.

You specifically mentioned the issue of nitrogen as if it were a common problem in Chile…
This is so because over the last 20 or 30 years, there was a tendency to apply excess nitrogen doses, considering that the plant in general only consumes half of the nitrogen that is applied. With this inadequate concept, in practice excessive applications of nitrogen are made.

What problems does excess nitrogen cause?

On the one hand, it affects the structure of the tissue and the firmness of the fruit, as well as the respiration rate during the travel time (higher nitrogen concentration implies greater ethylene activity and enzymatic activity that reduces structural quality). On the other hand, a high concentration of nitrogen can stimulate greater activity of pathogens during postharvest.

Why is preharvest nutrition important for blueberry postharvest performance?

If we carry out an adequate nutrition; is not to apply high doses of nutrients or high-cost fertilization programs, but to apply what is appropriate for each productive condition, sometimes it is even to stop applying some nutrient such as nitrogen in very fertile soils or vigorous varieties, or to use complementary products that help the plant work better. If we manage to do this, we would be increasing the carbon capture capacity of the environment and, therefore, the plant would create much more energy to feed fruits and improve their structures, as well as being a source of energy in the post-harvest period. In Chile, this is partially known, it is known what is important, but it is necessary to objectify the information with agronomic management.

You can learn more about Juan Hirzel by attending the next International Blueberry Seminar Chile 2022. This April 7, at the Monticello Conference Center, prominent exhibitors will speak on topics strategically selected to improve the competitiveness of the Chilean blueberry industry.

Catalina Pérez R.- Blueberries Consulting

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