The Arrival of Blueberries in South America

Plants imported from the U.S. drove the establishment of now-major industries in Chile, Argentina and Peru, sparking a berry revolution that reshaped the global fruit sector.

By Claudia Carranza Coron
Blueberries arriving from North America to South America

Blueberries have a rich historical legacy that transcends time. They were once a cornerstone in the diets of hunter-gatherer tribes, a culinary treasure for the pilgrims arriving in Plymouth, MA, in 1620, introduced to them by the Wampanoag people. Their origin remains uncertain, with some attributing it to North America and others to Northern Europe, Northern Africa and Asia. What is certain, however, is that they underwent a transformative shift from being wild fruit to becoming cultivated for commercial purposes just over a century ago.

“This is one of the more recently domesticated fruit species, as this transformation occurred in the early 20th century. In 1911, in the state of New Jersey, the first variety intended for planting by farmers was developed,” explains agronomist Carlos Muñoz Schick, who holds a PhD from the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences at the University of Chile and worked with the initial blueberry plants that arrived in Chile at the Agricultural Research Institute (INIA).

Blueberries, in fact, aren’t a single species but a group of them, all belonging to the Vaccinium genus within the Ericaceae family. But one species stands out on the global stage: Vaccinium corymbosum, better known as the Highbush blueberry in the English-speaking world. Currently, it thrives across almost 250,000 hectares (618,000 acres), producing approximately two million tons of blueberries.

These small blue orbs are quite particular about their growing conditions, which initially limited their production to a select few countries. Nonetheless, as time passed and traditional barriers were broken down, more nations embraced blueberry production.

While blueberries have enjoyed a long history of popularity in the United States and Canada, they had remained relatively unknown in South America. Their introduction to the region occurred in stages, with Chile taking the lead, followed by Argentina. As the foundations of the industry grew stronger, Peru entered the arena and swiftly established itself as a major player.

Chile’s southern region was selected as the ideal location for the introduction of blueberries to the country, marking the inception of formal blueberry cultivation in South America. The plants have a preference for acidic soils with low calcium content; they are classified as acidophilic and calcifuge.

“This led us to evaluate them at the experimental stations in southern Chile, where trumao soils are predominant. These soils, derived from volcanic ashes, exhibit acidic pH levels, minimal calcium content, and relatively high porosity,” explains Muñoz.

In October 1979, the initial blueberry varieties arrived, all belonging to the V. corymbosum species: Berkeley, Coville, Earlyblue, Herbert and Jersey. By December 1982, the selection expanded to include Atlantic, Bluecrop, Bluerey, Concord, Rancocas, Stanley, Bluejay, Bluetta, Collins, Elliott, Northland and Patriot.

“Subsequently, in December 1985, we made the decision to import varieties of the so-called Rabbiteye blueberry, which falls under the V. ashei species. Sixteen varieties were introduced, many of which continue to be cultivated today, such as Brightwell, Centurion, Tifblue and Woodard. These blueberries are known for their higher productivity and superior postharvest characteristics, although their fruit quality falls short of the Highbush variety,” says Muñoz.

During the same period, Chile’s Austral University conducted trials on a similar scale, focusing on minor fruits and launching a blueberry introduction and evaluation program primarily centered on Highbush varieties.

In an era marked by the economic crisis of the 1980s, numerous dairy, livestock and agricultural companies faced bankruptcy in the then Los Lagos Region in southern Chile. Berries emerged as a promising avenue for economic activity, and blueberries were among the crops singled out for development.

“The Chile Foundation, established in 1976 through an agreement between the Chilean government and ITT Corporation [an American worldwide manufacturing company based in Stamford, CT], aimed to create a project that prioritized labor-intensive crops suitable for export, with the dual goals of job creation and foreign currency generation,” explains José Plutarco Dinamarca, an agronomist who led Berries La Unión, the first company to commercially produce blueberries in South America.

To bring this project to fruition, prominent families and entrepreneurs from the southern region collaborated on a partnership that supplied the necessary capital. A field in the town of Choroico, La Unión, served as the backdrop for the cultivation, encompassing approximately 50 hectares (124 acres) of modern raspberry varieties, red and black currants, hybrid blackberries, gooseberries and an additional 10 hectares (25 acres) dedicated to blueberries.

“This marked the inception of the first company in the south to produce, process and export berries, and for most species and varieties, it was a pioneering endeavor in Chile. It played a pivotal role in training many professionals, technicians and specialized workers in these crops, who were previously scarce in the country. It also created major employment opportunities for women, who had fewer job alternatives until then,” recounts Dinamarca.

“We selected a couple of early-production varieties, two mid-season varieties and finally, two late-season varieties with the aim of commencing the harvest in La Unión, located 450 miles (750 kilometers) south of Santiago, around mid-December, and ideally concluding it by the end of March or mid-April. Our goal was to maximize the production timeline, but back then, as the pioneers of blueberry production in Chile, we were uncertain about when prices would peak,” says Dinamarca.

The blueberry plants embarked on their journey in two 20-foot shipping containers equipped with temperature control, reaching their new home a month later. While in the United States, these plants were in a dormant state, and the plan was to unload them in San Antonio — a major port in Chile’s central Valparaiso Region — then transport them to a nearby cold storage facility (since such facilities were scarce in the south), and store them there until planting in May or June. “This strategy exposed the plants to two consecutive winters, and then, during the Chilean spring, they began to sprout, transitioning from American plants to Chilean ones,” explains Dinamarca.

From South Haven, MI, their route took them through the Panama Canal, located near the equator. It was crucial to maintain the temperature inside the containers to prevent the plants from sprouting during the journey. Upon arrival at the port of San Antonio and after reviewing the temperature charts, they discovered that one of the containers had reached 20°C (68°F).

When inspectors from Chile’s Agricultural and Livestock Service (SAG) opened the container, they found that “the plants had not developed swollen buds, but rather that Penicillium, a cosmopolitan fungus, had appeared. Consequently, they made the difficult decision to destroy the entire batch by fire,” says Dinamarca. “I have cried very few times in my life, and witnessing the burning of the plants was one of those moments. It posed a threat to a project that was of great importance to the country and all the hard work we had invested in it. What saddened me the most was the lack of understanding from the experts.”

Having received the insurance money, he revisited the U.S. nursery for more plants. This time, he flew back, reducing risks. Entry was smooth, and they moved the plants to Choroico. There, they replicated the U.S. planting method, cultivating 10 hectares with six varieties.

Trial and Error

Rudy Quezada, an agricultural technician at Berries La Unión and currently the administrator of Agropecuaria Unihue — another agricultural company — explains, “In a second phase, in 1987, plants from the United States and New Zealand arrived, and they underwent the quarantine period in the field. Following that, Berries La Unión established a nursery, initiated plant multiplication, and began laying the foundation for the first blueberry fields here in the south.”

A professional technical team was also assembled to offer guidance for these new crops in an area with no prior experience in fruit cultivation. “The primary focus for the Chile Foundation was replication, which meant encouraging other producers to get involved in cultivation. That’s why we started producing plants, as everyone was eager to join in. We performed exceptionally well. Since we were the pioneers in fresh blueberry production in Chile, we had a significant advantage in the industry,” says Dinamarca.

Following the eventful initial phase, blueberry cultivation took root in the southern region. Agrícola Ñancul emerged as one of the pioneering local companies to embrace blueberries. Their journey began with a 50-hectare (124-acre) field located just three miles (five kilometers) from La Unión, according to Luis Alberto Sáenz, who served as their manager until a year and a half ago.

The early days were far from smooth. “We encountered a multitude of challenges. First, there was the task of identifying the optimal locations for crop development. Labor availability was another concern; although there was a workforce, training was essential. Then, there was the complex issue of managing agrochemicals, coupled with the challenge of sourcing high-quality planting material. With limited research available, we often found ourselves planting varieties that didn’t yield the desired results,” notes Sáenz.

This period was marked by trial and error, a journey of discovery as they adapted to the demands of blueberry cultivation. Sáenz vividly recalls that during this era, there were technical recommendations that seemed quite absurd, such as “planting six rows of one variety, followed by six rows of another, all intermixed, under the belief that rigorous cross-pollination was required.” This notion has subsequently been debunked.

To Infinity and Beyond

After being harvested, the blueberries embarked on their first journey to Santiago to then be exported. Many who played a role in the early days of this industry remember sending their fruit in foam containers with a frozen gel pack in the middle to maintain the temperature. These containers were transported on buses by Varmont, a local logistics company. Upon reaching Santiago, they were then flown to the United States.

The initial shipments were relatively small but managed to capture attention as they arrived in a market that was experiencing a shortage of fresh fruit. Berries La Unión led the way, and later, as blueberries became an appealing crop, other export companies emerged, significantly boosting the development of the blueberry industry.

During the 1990s and 2000s, there was high demand, and this period marked significant growth in blueberry cultivation. “The 1.5-kilogram (3.3-pound) box was selling for up to $70. Mature orchards were producing over 15,000 kilograms (33,000 pounds) with net returns of $10 to $15 per box, making it a highly profitable business. That’s when larger fields started to appear,” says Agropecuaria Unihue’s Quezada.

Manuel Barros entered the blueberry industry in 1996, joining his father-in-law, Don Jesús Villasante, who had already started his orchard in 1992. While he had several crops in the central Metropolitan Region, he had always been interested in doing something in the south and decided to invest in blueberries.

“He obtained some plants in the United States, brought them through the Austral University, and began his first 20 hectares (50 acres) of blueberries in the Lanco area. I started helping him in 1996 because, although he had a fairly attractive production, marketing was difficult,” he says.

Logistics were indeed a major challenge for the producers, and effective marketing was a crucial part of the supply chain. Barros remembers that after that less encouraging initial experience, they partnered with VitalBerry for two years until 1998 when he received a phone call from Víctor Moller, a central figure in the berry industry.

“He personally dialed the phone — back when rotary dials were in use — and we began working with Hortifrut. We still do, up to this day.”

In the early days, blueberries were not locally consumed. “We didn’t even take them home, and the pickers didn’t eat them either. No one liked them. I can’t recall how many years later I finally saw blueberries in the local markets and vegetable shops. There was very little domestic consumption,” recalls Barros.

Crossing the Andes

Following Chile’s example, the history of blueberries in Argentina dates back nearly a quarter of a century. “The initial plants primarily originated from the United States, and they consisted of older varieties compared to the ones we know today. Some of the earlier plants were sourced from Florida, specifically from Fall Creek, a nursery that provided some released varieties, while others came from the states of Michigan and Georgia, which were considerably later in terms of varieties,” says Jorge Pazos, president of the Argentine Blueberry Exporters Chamber (ABC).

The land, situated 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Buenos Aires, served as the stage for the country’s initial blueberry cultivation. Those who embarked on blueberry farming were largely not affiliated with the fruit industry but regarded it as an alternative pursuit alongside their primary professions, possessing the financial means to invest in this burgeoning sector. Concurrently, blueberry production commenced in a nascent form in Tucumán — a province in northwest Argentina — and eventually expanded to the province of Entre Ríos, just north of Buenos Aires. Over the ensuing years, there was a migration of growers toward Argentina’s northern regions due to the presence of lighter, sandy soils, ample high-quality water resources and a reduced risk of frost.

“The production curve began to take shape with early fruit in Tucumán, followed by Entre Ríos, and concluding in Buenos Aires. This allowed us to extend the harvest duration up to 35-40 days, providing us with nearly four months of productive activity,” says Pazos. “Chile was a strategic partner since their blueberry season initially started in November and continued until March. We even ran campaigns in Europe in collaboration with the Chilean Blueberry Committee, which was called ‘Blueberries from the South.’”

Despite receiving substantial support from Chilean companies that had already developed production and marketing capabilities and were interested in forging partnerships with their Argentine counterparts, the early stages were not without challenges.

“When I began, I planted early, mid-season, and late varieties with varying chill hour requirements to assess their performance. If you were to ask me today, looking back, I wouldn’t recommend it,” says Pazos.

“At the inception of the industry, our focus was on exports. However, over time, we started to cultivate the domestic market,” he adds. They have also significantly shifted towards organic production, now comprising about 80% of their output. This move, which was in part a response to Peru’s gradual move into their export window, aims at targeting less focused markets by major suppliers.

He Who Laughs Last…

Although it was one of the latecomers to the industry, Peru quickly turned the tide in its favor. In 2002, this small fruit, which was gaining popularity in Chile, captured the attention of Carlos Gereda. With remarkable foresight and after researching the cultivation — largely unfamiliar in Peru at the time — the current CEO of Inka’s Berries recognized the need for a local nursery that could produce plants to jumpstart the industry. During that period, a few companies had attempted to import plants from the United States and Chile, but the high cost and the two-year waiting period were discouraging factors for the business.

After conducting research between 2006 and 2008, Gereda established Peru’s first blueberry nursery, employing an in vitro methodology that enabled rapid plant production and reduced the cost per unit from $5 to $2. They imported 14 varieties, all royalty-free at that time, but only four proved successful: Biloxi, Sharp Blue, Duke and Legacy.

The climatic conditions were also not in line with what the literature and experience deemed ideal for this crop. Blueberries require chilling hours, which means temperatures of less than 7°C (44°F). “Initially, the earliest blueberry varieties required 300 to 500 chilling hours. These conditions do not exist on the Peruvian coast, where minimum temperatures are 10°C to 11°C (50-52°F). So, theoretically, cultivating this product was considered highly challenging. However, in practice, it was demonstrated that some varieties could adapt to these climatic conditions, and the plants could also thrive without issues,” explains Gereda.

Biloxi emerged as the most productive variety and, consequently, became the most widely planted in Peru. Peruvian blueberries entered the international market between September and October, filling the gap in the world’s supply of fresh fruit. In just eight years, from 2012 to 2022, Peru saw its annual blueberry production soar from 30 tons (just over 66,000 pounds) to a staggering 280,000 tons (617 million pounds) — a remarkable achievement.

In 2009, they began approaching local agribusiness companies to experiment with these varieties. “One of these companies was Camposol, and they kicked off their 2,000-hectare (5,000-acre) planting project in 2011,” says Gereda. In 2012, state-run Sierra Exportadora (now Sierra y Selva Exportadora) established experimental blueberry orchards as part of its “Peru Berries” program, with the goal of promoting blueberry cultivation throughout the country. And that was just the beginning.

Today, the blueberry industry extends its vast reach to numerous regions, generating nearly 200,000 jobs, with half of them going to women. Along the way, various projects, companies and stakeholders have joined forces, propelling Peru to become the world’s leading blueberry exporter, surpassing its southern, pioneering neighbor. Meanwhile, South America — where less than half a century ago blueberries weren’t grown commercially — now stands as a powerhouse in the global industry.