Blueberry farmers face delays in their returns as global prices of the fruit decrease

South Africa’s 2021/22 blueberry crop was up 60% from that of the previous season, totaling just over 31 520 marketable tons, while export prices were down 14% from those of 2020.

Peter Greeff, a consultant to the blueberry industry, said that prices had plummeted from R140/kg to between R35/kg and R60/kg over the past six years. However, many growers continued to base their return-on-investment calculations on R140/kg.

Farmers are not getting to the income they expected and are losing their farms to creditors. He said market standards had also risen over the past few years, and whereas berries with a diameter of 8mm could be exported in the past, they now needed to be at least 12mm in diameter.

In addition, the market was demanding a longer shelf life for blueberries. If ships are taking six weeks to get to Europe, many of the blueberries lose any ‘shelf life’ they had on the journey. This makes it even more difficult to get a decent price for the fruit.

Louw Pienaar, a senior analyst at the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy, echoed this sentiment, saying that research by the organization had shown that blueberry prices in the EU had dwindled since 2016.

As South Africa is a small player on the world market, supplying only around 2% of global blueberries, we have zero impact on prices. Furthermore, the peak season in South Africa coincides with [that of] Peru, which shifts substantial volumes to the EU during this time, he said.

Greeff said the best window in which to market South African blueberries was between September and October, but the bulk of the harvest was completed only towards the beginning of November. Those extra four weeks make a big difference in price. Many producers try to force the bushes to produce earlier, but this result in smaller berries over the entire season, which brings prices down.

Pienaar said farmers in Peru and China were expected to continue increasing the area planted to blueberries, and the rate at which they did so would determine the future of the industry for South African producers. Demand is expected to grow and prices will increase slightly, but input prices are increasing drastically, so in real terms, farmers can experience a decline in profit.

The good news is that the local market is growing, and processing prices are set to decrease as a result of bigger volumes. Local prices are projected to reach around R70/kg by 2031, up from the R60/kg expected for the coming 2022/23 season.

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