Transnet dumps blueberry industry in deep water

South Africa’s blueberry season has come to a close, and it is one that many farmers would prefer to forget, with the negative repercussions expected to be felt for years to come as many face financial ruin.

Transnet dumps blueberry industry in deep water
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Elzette Schutte, operations manager of Berries ZA, told Farmer’s Weekly that at the start of the season in September last year, the industry had high hopes for a good year.

“Exports were expected to reach 25 000t, up from nearly 21 000t the previous year. The increase is due to more hectares coming into production.”

She said that quality, especially from producers in the northern regions, was very good and so attracted good prices. Logistics had also started to rebound after COVID-19 pandemic disruptions.

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The industry was then plunged into dire straits when a Transnet labour strike crippled South Africa’s ports in November during peak export season, effectively shutting down the export market. This meant that fruit had to be diverted to the local market since airfreight was too costly.

“The South African market can only absorb so much, therefore prices were under pressure when the market was flooded with berries. Farmers can’t survive on the prices they were achieving for the berries. Blueberries are a very expensive crop to start up and annual production costs are high. The industry took a massive knock.”

Blueberry prices globally were also on a downward trend due to increasing volumes. The US Department of Agriculture reported towards the end of last year that prices had been slipping year after year due to the copious volumes coming in from Peru and other countries.

“These volumes have led to imbalances in supply and demand. In October, prices fell below US$5/kg (about R88/kg).”

South African blueberries arriving late in Europe due to the strike action were also met with high volumes from Peru and Chile, which led to prices averaging about R30/kg.

Quantifying the damage done by the Transnet strike, Brent Walsh, CEO of Berries ZA, said that aggregated across the entire blueberry industry, the loss had been conservatively calculated at R200 000/ha.

“Coming off two seasons of pricing and input cost pressures, growers are under severe strain to maintain sustainable levels of production. Hectares are expected to contract in 2023 as a result.”