Driven by health, convenience, availability, taste and quality, blueberry sales are booming in the UK, and the trend is quickly sprouting shoots elsewhere. Produce Business UK tracks the latest blueberry developments in Peru as the South American produce giant steps up its emergence as a prime source for early supplies at the start of the southern hemisphere season
In the last year alone the value of the blueberry market in the UK expanded by 25% to £237 million (compared with a mere £56m a decade ago), according to Kantar figures, provided to Produce Business UK by BerryWorld.
“Blueberries are growing in popularity,” confirms Nic Walton, blueberry product manager at the Hertfordshire based firm. “In the UK, 11.3 million households bought blueberries in the last year versus 4m in 2006. There has been amazing growth. Penetration is at 42% currently, up from 20% five years ago. It’s fantastic and the category is doing really well.”
11.3m UK shoppers a year buy blueberries
42% of UK households buy blueberries – 15% growth in the last year
UK sold 25,641 tonnes of blueberries last year
Dom Weaver, communications director at RED, which coordinates Peruvian produce supplier Camposol’s PR for blueberries in the UK, agrees there remains a lot of potential for growth in the UK, despite blueberry sales taking off years ago. He believes Peru is well placed to capitalise on that opportunity too.
“Peru is growing in certain products and the country has been quite clever in those products that have been targeted,” he says. “Peruvian exporters aren’t looking at commodities as such; they’re supplying what Marks & Spencer used to class as ‘everyday luxuries’, like nice varieties of grapes, blueberries or asparagus.
“Blueberries are a product which has been earmarked for development in Peru and the country is growing as a source,” Weaver continues. “Quite a lot of money has been invested already.”
With an eye on the September to December supply window in the UK, Peru is keen to especially target the weeks leading up to November before Argentinean and particularly Chilean blueberries arrive on the market. But thanks to the growing conditions along the desert coastline of Peru, the country could equally supply as late as March and April.
“There are two key windows,” confirms Walton. “First, when we move from the northern hemisphere [supply] to southern hemisphere around September/October, and second when supply moves in the opposite direction around March/April.”
Walton says the first window is opening up because of a lack of blueberry growth coming from Argentina. “There is huge potential,” he points out. “A reduction in later fruit from Argentina means we are seeing a minor gap appearing around late November/early December before Chile comes into the market.
“After Argentina’s peak there’s a shortage of blueberries, which is around the Thanksgiving holiday in the US when that market takes a lot of fruit too. That is opening up a window for production as demand increases worldwide. Peru could even look at competing with Chile all the way through.”
That said, Walton notes that for the European market, South Africa is certainly a closer source, plus the country has more of a focus on supplying the European market. “They’re a competitor,” he explains.
“South Africa has more dedicated production for Europe, so they’re not competing in other markets like the US. Peru is more focused on the US and Asia-Pacific but look at what they’ve done with asparagus. It’s not that Europe isn’t on their radar.”
During the second window, Walton also points out that big plantings are taking place in Morocco for the same period of supply. However, he believes that is not to say Peru couldn’t play a short- to medium-term role around that time too, in the same way that Mexico can produce blueberries all year round.
According to Peru’s exporter umbrella group Agap, Peru is on course to export 17,000 tonnes of blueberries by 2020, up from 5,000 tonnes this year, and zero in 2012. That growth will come from the country’s two pioneering blueberry growers: Tal SA (the fresh produce subsidiary of Grupo Rocío) and Camposol, as well as other rapidly emerging players.
Grupo Rocío’s CEO Ulises Quevedo believes in the near term Peru will manage 2,500ha of blueberries, with room available to easily grow to 7,000ha should the demand be there around the globe. “Tal SA and Camposol currently account for 85% of all Peruvian blueberry exports but that [share] will reduce with all the new players,” he predicts. “There are five new growers who will be important. Most of the fruit is coming from the north of Peru but there is also some production in the south.”
Currently, Trujillo-based Tal SA operates 700 hectares of blueberries; an area which is expanding to 1,500ha. Camposol, meanwhile, has invested over US$140m (£91m) in blueberry plants, packing facilities and equipment, and expects its production to rise to approximately 2,000ha by 2016 – an area that it claims will apparently eventually yield as much as 30,000 tonnes of blueberries a year. Last year, the UK retail market gobbled up 25,641 tonnes of blueberries, according to Kantar.
Quevedo concurs with Walton’s year-round production assertion, explaining that originally, Peru believed its blueberry season would be September to December when there’s little offer available from other sources.
“We discovered that we can supply year-round and that offers Peru a big potential to be an important global player,” he explains. “We don’t depend on the weather for our season. We have a pretty stable climate with no rainfall in a regular year [when El Niño isn’t present]. This dry climate protects the fruit – we don’t have fungus problems – and the condition is really good.
“By pruning we can also choose when to pick, so we can harvest exactly when a retailer needs fruit. We are very competitive in terms of quality and production costs too.”
Sizing is another bonus from Peru, according to both Walton and Quevedo. “Usually in other producing areas 20% of your crop will be above 16mm in size,” Quevedo explains. “In Peru, 80% can be above 16mm, depending on the variety.”
Finding the right varieties
With such capacity and promising potential it would be easy to get carried away with thoughts of Peruvian blueberry supply. Indeed, Walton admits he has had to temper his enthusiasm from the excitement of the early days.
“Peru is on a very steep learning curve,” he explains. “You don’t just plant a new crop where it’s never been grown before and have instant huge success. We have general concerns over the flavour profile of Peruvian fruit and whether it meets the high quality demands of the UK market. Some of our supermarket clients weren’t that enamoured.”
The UK supermarkets want flavour, according to Walton, but Peru is not quite there yet with its plantings of the industry standard blueberry variety of Biloxi. Currently, he claims the Biloxi coming from Peru is more acidic than sweet, which works for a market like the US where he says blueberries are used more in cooking and sugar is added.
“Peruvian fruit is larger so it can command a premium sometimes over Argentinian fruit that’s supplied at the same time, but, so far, the flavour profile doesn’t fit our market – UK consumers are eating blueberries fresh,” he explains.
Quevedo is aware of the issue and is quick to point out that UK retailers may have gained a poor impression of the initial supplies of Peru-grown Biloxi due to mistakes from which growers have already learned.
“It was the first year of production and a lot has changed,” he says. We were picking too soon and the fruit wasn’t ripe enough. Now we’re picking every six to seven days. We’re still learning and there will be a lot more improvement in the next few years.”
Interestingly, last season, Camposol – whose blueberry production comprises mostly Biloxi – commissioned the Flavour Centre at the University of Reading to conduct a UK consumer survey of 113 people. The panel tasted blueberries from three sources: Peru, Argentina and Uruguay, all of which were harvested at the same time of year.
Consumers were asked several questions relating to their overall preference, followed by their liking of the appearance, flavour and texture and their opinions of the sweetness, the sourness and juiciness of the blueberries. Camposol, and therefore Peru, came out top with its Biloxi variety in this admittedly small sample size survey.
“Some 42% preferred Camposol/Peruvian berries, 38% preferred Argentinean blueberries and 20% preferred Uruguayan,” explains Weaver at RED, which coordinated the project. “Comments included: ‘The zing was very good’, ‘better texture’, ‘the best flavour and balance’, ‘all the best qualities of a blueberry’.”
Nonetheless, Tal SA is already exploring ways to better suit its blueberry production to Peru’s growing conditions and UK retailers’ flavour requirements. While most of Peru’s blueberry plantings comprise Biloxi, Quevedo reveals his company is trialling a number of new varieties.
“We have a joint venture with Hortifrut which owns the Rocío blueberry variety – it’s the best in the world,” he exclaims. “The flavour and sweetness is well balanced. It has the perfect taste. All other varieties are benchmarked against Rocío.”
Such is its appeal, Quevedo claims Rocío is UK retailer Tesco’s number one preferred blueberry variety. “Tesco needs a year-round supply of Rocío and they’d love to have it in the September to December window to fill a gap. We’re planting a lot of Rocío and we have 250ha already.”
Walton also points out that Hortifrut has the rights to the Atlantic Blue breeding programme, which, he believes, has “some of best varieties coming out of Spain at the moment”. He says those varieties are already working quite well in Chile and Morocco and, to a lesser extent, in Mexico too, and notes that the ground in Peru is “pretty much the same” as in Huelva in Andalucía, Spain. That said, he suggests Peru may still need to create a variety that’s bred in Peru, for Peru’s climate.
Besides Rocío and Biloxi, Tal SA has planted around 15 other blueberry varieties including Jewel, Emerald and Spring High, plus new varieties that are not yet available on the market from the University of Florida and another breeder.
“Last year we exported Emerald, Biloxi and Jewel and they worked pretty well,” Quevedo comments. “Biloxi is actually the preferred blueberry variety in other markets. It’s a pretty good variety, but it’s not Rocío. This year we’ll be sending more volume, including Rocío, to the UK. Our Rocío plantations are fairly new, so we just need more volume. Next year we’ll have more to send to the UK. We’re pretty excited.”
Dole Berry Company and Sunnyridge have also reportedly licensed some Peruvian growers to produce their Florida-bred varieties, which are suited to Peru’s climate with its low chilling requirements. Early evidence apparently suggests that those varieties could be superior to Biloxi too. The first harvest was in September/October 2014 and the crop is aimed at the pre-Chile supply window.
Targeting other routes to market
With demand growing worldwide, Walton sees opportunities to supply blueberries to more than just the retail or fresh markets, which could open up further avenues for Peru.
“We’d like to see people choosing blueberries instead of reaching for chocolate at petrol stations, for example” he says. “We’d also love to get blueberries into foodservice operators like McDonald’s. But blueberries are still relatively expensive at key points of the year, which makes them a bit more difficult to get into those markets.”
Peruvian suppliers agree that there are other routes to market for their blueberries. Quevedo is very confident that eventually his company will send blueberries to the foodservice market, while Camposol expects to supply frozen blueberries to non-retail sectors in the near future.