Peru has hit the table in the world of forest fruits. The South American country has become the main exporter of blueberries (blueberries, in English) on the planet, surpassing great powers such as the US, Canada and Chile. After being a minor competitor for the past decade, it has crowned itself the king of so-called blue gold. The recipe for success has several ingredients: a perfect habitat (the coastal desert with significant extensions for large-scale production), the development of sophisticated irrigation systems (which have allowed high productivity), science-based agriculture (with hard research work in plant genetics) and a group of companies open to exploring new varieties to satisfy the market.
“Over the last decade, the blueberry industry has become truly global,” says Cindy van Rijswick, Rabobank fresh produce expert. “The international market is growing with Peru,” she acknowledges. In 2022, the Andean country’s industry exported 287,806 tons of blueberries worth 1.4 billion dollars (about 1.25 billion euros). This figure represents a historical record, the fourth in a row, for a business that in 2012 did not sell anything beyond its borders. One of the protagonists in this story is Carlos Gereda, founder and executive director of Inka’s Berries.
After an important visit by Peruvian businessmen to Chile in 2002, when blueberries already had a notable impact on international markets, Gereda, a graduate of La Molina Agrarian University, discovered that in his country there was a general lack of knowledge about the product. From this, he drew two conclusions. First of all, the production of this fruit on Peruvian soil had great potential during the low season in the northern hemisphere, the region where it is consumed in the greatest quantity. The USA, which was the main supplier of blueberries in the world, supplied blueberries to the market between May and August. Afterwards, the season was partially over and we had to wait for Chile (which until recently was the leader in Latin America) to take over in December. In other words, between September and November there were not enough blueberries on the market to meet the growing demand. Argentina and Uruguay, also participants in the business, could barely cover the gap that opened up during that period. And there was the window of opportunity for Peru.
Blueberries of the Matías variety developed by Inka’s Berries.
The second conclusion Gereda came to was that, in order to take advantage of the gap, it was necessary to have quick access and at reasonable prices to plants that were adapted to local conditions. So he got down to work and launched himself in search of a variety that could be grown on the Peruvian coast. It was not something easy. This fruit requires a cold period (known as winter chill) to grow. At least 400 to 800 cold hours are needed at temperatures below a certain threshold, which is usually around seven degrees, and which cannot be achieved on the Peruvian coast. After a couple of years and after testing 14 different varieties, Gereda hit the nail on the head with four of them, which led to the creation of protocols for in vitro propagation. The next challenge was finding agricultural companies willing to jump on the blueberry bandwagon in a land where grapes, asparagus, and avocados (or avocados, as they call it there) abound.
This is how, in 2009, Gereda founded Inka’s Berries. That same year, Camposol, one of the largest producers in the country, decided to try one of the varieties already tested by Gereda to enter the business. Both companies found that the Biloxi variety was better adapted to local conditions. It was then that Camposol focused decisively on the development of this fruit. The company converted its asparagus fields, whose yields had been declining, into blueberry plantations. In 2011 they planted their first 50 hectares. By 2016, they already had 1,600 hectares. Currently, Camposol, the largest exporter of blueberries in the country, has 3,000 hectares. “Something transformative and magical emerged in Peru,” says José Antonio Gómez, CEO of the company, which in 2022 exported some 50,820 tons, almost the same amount that Spain sold abroad. Last year it had a turnover of almost 500 million dollars, of which 65% were thanks to blueberries.
Currently, Peruvian farmers produce the fruit throughout the year, although the peak of production occurs between September and October. The dedicated hectares are more than 20,000. They are sold to more than 30 nations, and the country ranks third as a producer, after the US and China. In addition to Camposol, various companies also participate, such as Agrovisión Perú, Hortifrut, Agrícola Cerro Prieto or Exportadora Frutícola del Sur, among others. “We have estimated that 135,000 direct jobs were generated in the last campaign,” says Luis Miguel Vegas, manager of ProArándanos.
As for the varieties, more than 65 different ones have been certified. In addition, Gereda, in collaboration with the University of Georgia, has developed new ones. “The blueberry is the last great agro-export product in the country, but it was first preceded by asparagus, grapes and avocados,” says Piero Ghezzi, founding partner of HacerPerú and also a former Minister of Production of that country. Ghezzi points out that success has been based on a confluence of factors. First, the public policy decisions that the country has taken in recent decades. Among them, the development of irrigation projects on the Peruvian coast, in the strengthening of Senasa —the health entity in charge of opening new export markets—, but also the Agrarian Promotion Law —launched in 2000, renewed in 2006 and repealed in 2020 —, which established a special tax and labor regime, as well as free trade agreements signed with different markets, including the United States, Europe and China, which have allowed duty-free exports.
The boom, however, is not without its risks. “The main one is farmers expanding production too fast,” Van Rijswick says. This could put pressure on margins and prices, which have already been on the decline in recent years. In addition, there is competition from other countries, geopolitical tensions (such as the war in Ukraine, which has increased the costs of inputs), logistical difficulties, internal political unrest and the effects of climate change. This last factor is already making a dent. A hotter climate affects some varieties and it is difficult to know what the production of the 2023-2024 campaign will be, explains the manager of ProArándanos. “We handle three scenarios: the first is that exports will grow, the second is that we will maintain last year’s numbers and the third is that we would drop in volume… If the latter occurs, we would still maintain our position as the world’s leading exporter,” he concludes.
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