Bolivian blueberries… we’d never heard of them either until we met Diego Mercado Vergnes, manager of agricultural operations at Compañía Industrial de Tabacos (CITSA). A family-owned tobacco company by trade, the firm has since set up an agricultural arm called AgroNáyade that’s already growing blueberries and eventually plans produce a range of berries, subtropical and tropical fruits in the eastern Andes of the landlocked South American country
In the far south of Bolivia, just 400km from Tucumán – Argentina’s leading blueberry growing area – the subsidiary of Compañía Industrial de Tabacos is growing mainly blueberries, primarily Star, Misty and O’Neal, and some other fruits. Currently, AgroNáyade has nearly 15ha under production in Tarija after already doubling the area at the end of 2015.
A complete newcomer to the trade, Bolivia can produce a range of berries, table grapes, cherries and tropical fruits like mangoes and papayas in the eastern area of the country, according to Mercado Vergnes. And although the South American nation lacks the commercial standing as a global fruit supplier, Mercado is unfazed; explaining that AgroNáyade has high aspirations.
“Bolivia has not been related with fruit production or regarded as a source country for fruit,” he admits. “But we believe we can build a strong country brand, starting with our blueberries. We want to offer quality and safe products for our clients, produce fruit in respect with our unique environment and social legislations in order to contribute to the sustainable development of Bolivia.”
Mercado says this is all possible thanks to Bolivia’s unique environment, which differs even from its closest neighbouring countries. Ranking among the 10 most diverse countries in the world, he claims within a 200km transect one can move from a tropical region producing bananas, pineapples and papayas at 400m above sea level, to highlands at more than 4,000m above sea level, where quinoa and other Andean products are grown.
“Our different ecological zones created by the differences in altitude give us the chance to grow almost every crop in different regions,” he explains. “Our ecological diversity is also related with a cultural diversity rarely seen in other countries – we have 32 native languages, each with their own culture.”
In Tarija in the eastern Andes, AgroNáyade is currently producing blueberries, and will shortly start growing raspberries, blackberries and strawberries for the Bolivian market. Mercado says the firm has plans to start evaluating low chilling cherry varieties from California, while in other regions, where there is no frost risk, other growers are already producing mangoes, papayas and pineapples, mainly for the Bolivian market.
AgroNáyade’s blueberries are grown at high altitude, with plantations sitting 1,300m above sea level. The fruit is available the autumn and early winter months – during the northern hemisphere’s counter-season. Around 95% of the fruit is available from week 39 in September, until week 45 in early November, with the remaining 5% harvested in other months from February to June/July.
“Our environment is very different from other [blueberry-producing] regions,” Mercado points out. “We are producing in subtropical Andean valleys at a relatively high altitude. The valleys are small (200-300ha), surrounded by forests that are home to many animal species, including jaguars, pumas, spectacled bears and many birds (toucans and parrots).
“The average rainfall is 1,200mm per year, and concentrated over three months: January, February and March. We have a very dry autumn, winter and spring, which allows us to have great pollination during the flowering period and a safe harvesting period, without rainfall.
“During the berry development and harvesting season, the thermal amplitude can reach up to 30°C (day/night), with night temperatures of 8-10°C and day temperatures of up to 40°C. This difference between day and night temperatures gives our berries a special crunchy texture.”
The production system used by AgroNáyade is under a drip irrigation system, with the crops being irrigated up to three times during the hottest months in the spring and summer.
So far, AgroNáyade has planted almost 15ha with blueberries in Tarija. In addition, the firm has new farms that will be planted during 2016 and 2017, which will take the area to 50ha by the end of 2017. Once all of its planted area (50ha) has reached full production, AgroNáyade plans to harvest around 500t of blueberries a year.
“This year we think we will reach 45 tonnes during our peak production season (October),” estimates Mercado. “We will also harvest 8-9t during our autumn season (April/May).”
Compared with neighbouring blueberry-producing giants, Mercado says yields in Bolivia are currently lower – at 8-10t/ha, because of differences in species and varieties.
“In southern Chile, the main [blueberry] varieties are from northern highbush species (Duke, Elliot, Bluecrop) that normally yield more than southern highbush. Also, the producers in Argentina and Uruguay are cultivating new southern highbush varieties (Jewel, Emerald, Snowchaser), which are more productive than Star, Misty and O’Neal.”
To support its production growth and export aspirations AgroNáyade will this year plant a plot with eight new varieties from the University of Florida in the USA. The varieties – Snowchaser, Sweetcrisp, Flicker, Primadonna, Farthing, Kestrel, Meadowlark and Scintilla – will be tested during the course of three years, and Mercado says the group hopes to start commercial production as soon as some positive results come through.
UK export aspirations
After successfully supplying Bolivian supermarkets under the brand Andean Blueberries – including marketing 20t last year to supermarkets and also traditional markets, Mercado says AgroNáyade now wants to develop an export business to markets including the UK. This year already the firm expects to export its production to UK and other European markets.
“We’re trying to find clients in the UK as it’s a growth market,” he explains. “By 2016 we’ll have 50-60t available. We’ve already made contact with CPM in the UK [a family-owned business that’s been sourcing produce for years] and we have another contact in Chile who buys for Germany.”
Last year AgroNáyade sent some pallets with different blueberry varieties to CPM in order to evaluate the quality and arrival conditions of its fruit. The experience was positive for both parties, he claims. As a result, the group hopes to send more volume to the UK at the end of August or during the first weeks of September, depending on the start of the 2016/17 season.
“According to CPM, the berries had a nice sweet taste and crunchy texture,” Mercado says. “The berry size we supplied to CPM was 12+, with berries of up to 18mm. But regarding shelf-life, we need to improve our arrival condition, mainly because of the long transit times.”
Indeed, Mercado claims the big issue issue for Bolivia’s produce export is having the logistics in place to get supplies out of the country. “We are a landlocked country with relatively few asphalted roads and low infrastructure investment, which complicates our commercial interactions with other countries and regions,” he admits.
“The roads aren’t as good as we’d like but every year the numbers of asphalted roads is increasing. We also still need to develop the logistic infrastructure, such as cold storage facilities and cold transportation solutions etc.”
Currently, the group is eagerly trying to find a new blueberry export route to the European market – most probably through Madrid in Spain with Colombian airline Avianca and Boliviana de Aviación (BoA).
“The airports aren’t really developed in Bolivia,” Mercado points out. “There are only two airlines that fly direct from Bolivia to Europe. Last year, we sent fruit to the UK on Avianca via Lima [Peru] and Bogotá [Colombia], but also Madrid.
“This year the national airline BoA has announced flight share codes with [Spanish airline] Iberia, which should give us new routes from Madrid. There are also some government plans to develop a hub airport at Santa Cruz [in Bolivia’s tropical lowlands, east of the Andes Mountains].”