09 Jul 2022

2022: a season to forget for Italian Duke blueberries

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The fulcrum of the blueberries season in Piedmont has now come to an end. For Duke in particular, it was a troubled season that brought to the surface the criticalities of a still immature domestic market and saw the certainties guaranteed for years by the main export markets falter. 

PRODUCTION

Despite the positive spring prospects, when it came time to harvest, the plants turned out to be leaner than expected. The strong heatwaves then led to an almost uniform ripening, shortening the season and converging production between 18 and 25 June. Rather than a season, one could therefore speak of a single production peak.

Despite the limited volumes, the simultaneous ripening of most production batches did not allow all producers, especially those most in difficulty due to labour shortages, to easily harvest their product on time.

In short, no small problems were created, especially when added to the exponential increase in the costs of production, storage, packaging, labour, transport and processing of a product that takes precious time to be brought to specification for a 4-5 day journey abroad. 

Blueberry Duke (Piedmont)
Blueberry Duke Piedmont (photo NCX Drahorad)

DUKE, THE WINDOW THAT IS NOT THERE

In recent years, neighbouring countries (Spain, Portugal from the West, Romania, Serbia, Poland from the East) have equipped themselves to be present as long as possible on international markets, to the point of jeopardising our export season for blueberry Duke .

Improved storage techniques and increasing late production have now enabled Spanish producers to extend their season into July with a more than decent product, while early production in Eastern Europe is now able to reach the main markets in Northern Europe by the end of June. 

And when from the West prices are stable at €4.50/kg and from the East they start from a supply base of €4.30/kg, carving out your own space becomes difficult if not on the terms of competing countries (and sometimes not even, due to the long-term plans of competing countries). 

A standard Italian blueberry on an international marketplace is substitutable by any other origin or cheaper offer price. So why do people still hesitate to look within their own national borders? 

THE NATIONAL MARKET

Due to the complications and excessive costs of producing, sorting and processing the product, more and more operators felt the need to send their product to the domestic market this year. Shorter journeys, no documentary complications, less painstaking selection and often directly from the countryside or with returnable packaging recycled from overseas supplies. 

Unfortunately, however, due to an immature domestic market that is still not properly educated in the consumption of fresh berries , the situation changed from convenient to a real 'funnel' within a few days of the start of production.

Although full production was delayed in adopting the heavier 125g formats (e.g., 250g/500g/1Kg) in order to increase sales volumes, prices in distribution still remained high and some of the most important retailers still continued to have in their assortment exclusively product of foreign origin, sometimes with questionable quality (source Piccoli Frutti Myfruit.it Observatory - Modena 22/06). 

Consumption tended to remain low and unable to absorb the production peak, due to the holiday season and the crisis. The poor quality of the standard imported varieties, which were sometimes refrigerated for weeks before being distributed this spring and which did not lead consumers to buy them back immediately despite the change of origin, certainly contributed to the consumption crisis. 

VARIETY

Although Duke is still the most important variety in Piedmont in terms of extension and strategic production timing, varietal renewal year after year is achieving new and interesting results, both for export and for the domestic market. 

In an international market with an increasingly segmented supply, the introduction of the patented varieties defined as 'premium' by the various distribution chains in Northern Europe has allowed a trend of stable prices throughout the season and less subject to the market or production dynamics of the 'standard' varieties. 

As far as the domestic market is concerned, on the other hand, patented varieties are being effectively introduced in the large-scale retail trade, and some chains in particular are beginning to read their names on the label, in order to build consumer loyalty and educate them to a more mature purchase of fresh berries .

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