In this exclusive interview Gianluigi Bertelli, head of Spreafico's berries business unit, analyzes the main factors that are characterizing the development of the blueberry supply chain in Italy, with particular reference to the critical issues and objectives affecting production and consumption.
Globally, blueberry has been one of the most dynamic products in the fruit and vegetable department. What is the situation in Italy?
The blueberry proves to be the reference of excellence within the Berries world, and our sales figures confirm this.
The continued high demand for Small Fruits in recent years has confronted us with the need to study, implement and revise the forecasts of our existing projects.
The cultivation of blueberry in Italy, for example, has undergone not inconsiderable accelerations and changes bringing an inevitable impact on the entire supply chain. There are two factors, in our opinion, that from the production point of view have particularly characterized the last two seasons: seasonality and climate change.
Regarding seasonality, we found that the Italian blueberry has expanded its production window. This year at the end of March and beginning of April, the Italian blue pearl was already available in stores, two to three months earlier than in previous years.
The achievement can be attributed to the investment, energy and time that farmers have devoted in recent years to defining and developing new production facilities in southern Italy.
So this spring we found that the supply of blueberries in the stores was characterized by 3 main origins: Morocco, Spain and Italy, a period when the first two reach peak production.
The second factor, which we believe ties in with the first, concerns climate change.In September, the NRC declared that 2022 was the hottest year on record for the past two centuries.
The anticipation of high temperatures as early as spring meant that, agriculturally speaking, nature gave us so much produce at different times than we were used to.
As in Italy, this condition has also occurred in other countries and, as a result, the different production windows have changed: the presence so much product in a relatively short period.
Overproduction is a sensitive issue, as we had already pointed out at the end of the 2022 Italian Duke season. What is the secret to avoiding these critical issues?
Certainly the issue of overproduction is one that needs to be analyzed very carefully before drawing certain conclusions.
This is a very current and particular issue that in Spreafico we are observing by comparing ourselves with our partners-suppliers and retail-to find, together, the right solution.
In 2013 Spreafico started a specific project for the Berry category where we laid the foundations of a great work that today, almost 10 years later, is giving us excellent results.
In doing so, we have embarked on a very clear strategic path in manufacturing: to select and support manufacturers across the board by positioning ourselves as a reliable partner.
How? By helping, for example, producers in identifying the most suitable varieties to grow according to the characteristics of their area, establishing production plans and, above all, programming.
To achieve this, it is essential, in our opinion, to always listen to the needs of the market in order to define the guidelines necessary to forecast, quantify and consciously manage the productions of blueberry (and beyond).
Scheduling has been our strength that has ensured an effective and "fruitful" post-harvest even in particular period as seen in this 2022.
What other factors are affecting the economic sustainability of the blueberry supply chain in Italy?
One thing is certain, the production scenario in which we work is no longer what we were used to a few years ago.
In our view, there are two major critical issues to which we need to pay close attention: the difficulty in finding labor and the cost of production. Now more than ever we have seen how the current economic situation affects the economic sustainability of the supply chain berries.
In our view, the holy grail in the immediate term is three factors: thoughtful planning, varietal innovation to ensure berries excellent, and technological innovation in harvesting, e.g., mechanized harvesting that would lead to a significantly different hourly yield than manual harvesting.
At present, however, in our opinion there is still no machine that can respect the plant and the quality of the product; there is a lot of work to be done.
What about the consumer?
Listening to the market is essential for us to face all challenges and find the right solutions, now more than ever. The customer increasingly seeks quality products, an indispensable value.
We can say that the "bastachesiablù!" phase is over and they go beyond the aesthetic feature: the blueberries must be crispy, good sized and above all healthy. The market data give us clear indications: the particular social/economic moment predicts a stable consumption of blueberries and for this reason we believe that proper production planning and programming is the right solution to meet all the demands that producers, retailers and consumers place on us.
How is Spreafico dealing with this delicate transition in the development of the blueberry supply chain in Italy?
As anticipated to govern the supply chain, our mantra is: produce the right product at the right time in the right quantities, i.e., produce on schedule with the certainty of knowing how to allocate much of the product as early as the time when designing plants.
This is the spirit that drives, and has driven, Spreafico farms to invest directly in the cultivation of blueberry: produce-process-distribute the product directly.