Jorge Duarte, a Portuguese agronomist who advises berry growers, was hired by USAID’s agriculture program in Georgia to advise local growers. After a series of online seminars in 2020, he visited berry plantations in Georgia twice in April and July 2021. Since Jorge has extensive experience working with berries in Morocco, Egypt, Romania, Spain, Italy, Turkey, EastFruit Georgian experts discussed the current state and prospects of blueberry production in Georgia with him.
What can you tell us about the raspberries and blackberries sector in Georgia?
The main tendency is that raspberries and blackberries are planted in open fields in Georgia. In my experience, it is not the best choice for the fresh market. Usually, open-field berries are sold to the processing sector, as open-field production opens the door for various diseases, sunburns, and mold on fruit which makes it less valuable for the fresh market. All of these climate-related issues reduce production potential and marketable yields. Berries for fresh markets are produced in tunnels for a protection from rain, direct sunlight, pests, and diseases.
Most varieties, like Nova, Caroline, Himbo Top, and Tulamagic (primocane variety) I’ve seen in Georgia are old. Only recently the USAID Agriculture program
has introduced to growers new varieties such as the primocane Amira, which can be harvested in autumn and spring. Early varieties are important because summer is warm in the regions, where raspberries and blackberries are planted in Georgia. Temperature is high, above 30 degrees Celsius, and humidity is low, below 50% in Summer. These conditions aren’t favorable for berry production. From my point of view, the best climate for summer harvesting in Georgia is in the Guria region because of the humidity from the Black Sea and the milder temperature as well as the softer climate. Therefore, it would be ideal for Georgia to produce raspberries and blackberries in spring and autumn in tunnels and shade nets to improve the quality and yields. Addition of the spring and autumn production to the main production season in summer and a good mix of varieties allow to be presented on supermarket shelves for a longer time and secure long term contracts.
How can Georgian farmers improve quality now?
They can start with placing shade nets in orchards to avoid the negative effects of the sun. This is something we are already discussing with growers but they have not started investing in it yet. According to my information, few suppliers are working on the Georgian market, which makes it difficult to import materials or makes imports too expensive. Having shade nets is just one thing to improve quality now. It is not the ultimate solution.
Another point is the high pH level in the soil. It is difficult to grow plants above pH level of 8 without correcting the soil because most nutrients are absorbed on soil pH levels 6-7. Most of the soils are not amended with elemental sulfur to lower pH levels in Georgia. This should be done a minimum from 6 to 12 months before planting to create a reaction and regulate pH shift in soil. Besides that, growers need to use more acidic fertilizers, such as ammonium nitrate, ammonium sulfate, and monoammonium phosphate to keep a lower pH in the root zone. This also includes the acidification of the irrigation water due to the high bicarbonate levels in it which creates a strong buffer in the pH level and consequently in the soil of the root area.
When starting from scratch, obviously, the key to success is to have the correct plan from the beginning. It should start with choosing suitable varieties for Georgia to harvest in spring and autumn and building specific tunnels for each variety.
I would also advise farmers to plant more seedlings per ha than are planted now. Normally from 12000 to 16000 plug plants are planted per ha, but this number is 6000-7000 in Georgia. This system was used in the US and Europe 20-30 years ago, back then farmers had more space between plants because they were growing them in bundles. Today 3 to 4 plants are planted in one linear meter as a single plant, with a trellis system in Europe.
The Georgian growers I’ve visited are using a trellis system but the distance between plants is 0.75 or 1 m instead of 0.25 or 0.33 m. As the old system is used mostly with floricane varieties in Georgia that give fruits only after the first year in the soil, plants will multiply from root suckers, increasing orchards’ density, but in order to reach higher yields, growers should start with a higher number of plants.
Is it possible to reduce the costs when producing for processing?
To lower the costs, berries are machine harvested. Handpicking will always be more expensive, however, we cannot avoid picking by hand, when targeting fresh market. At the same time labor shortage is already an issue in Georgia. When working with fresh market, there will be some percentage of non-conditional fruit that will go in processing anyway thus the cost for handpicking should be considered.
When picked for processing, growers can leave the fruit on plants for a longer period and pick them at once, this way labor cost is lower, however, berries for processing are also much cheaper, Growers should consider requirements from buyers. In Portugal, if you pick blackberries for the fresh market, you can harvest on average of 3-4 kg in an hour but for processing, you can collect 10-12 kg, according to picking data from growers in the sector.
What is your advice to growers or those who are planning to invest in this sector?
Gain knowledge before planting. Visiting raspberry and blackberry farms outside of your country should be the first thing to do. This will familiarize you with the newest trends and the future of this sector. If there is not enough knowledge in your country, you should look for outside support to get advice that can help you in the business development.
Get informed about the best varieties in the market, talk to advisors and nurseries. Select the most suitable varieties for exports. Selling locally and exporting is different. Locally you can sell more ripe fruit, but if you have to transport it by plane or truck, you should have the best varieties with the best shelf life to keep the quality.
For local or close export markets like Russia, varieties such as Tulameen, Glen Ample, Imara, Kweli, or Mapema, still can be the most interesting ones, as it is in Eastern European markets. For long-distance export, it is better to get new varieties with longer shelf life like Amira, Lagorai, Wengi, Optima, Enrosadira, Kwanza, Eros, or Clarita. Most of the best varieties are protected with a license. Only licensed nurseries like Driscolls, Berry World, ABB Breeding, or Planasa sell them.
Make analysis of strengths and weaknesses to see the challenges you have to face.
Find the best land and water to start your project. I saw that some regions are lacking water. State water supply channels are in deficit or non-existent there. Without water availability, berry production will be scarce. The minimum is to have a source with at least 8 m3/hour.
Order raspberry or blackberry plants at least 6 months before planting. Even if you want to plant long canes (mature cane ready to produce) in February – March you need to order these plants at least 9 to 12 months ahead.
Consider not only production, but post-harvest handling. Cold chain from the field to the farm is a key to keep quality and freshness of berries.
Low demand is traditionally a weakness in berry markets but low supply is often the problem too, especially when markets have just started to develop.
Georgia needs to create a steady supply to have a steady demand. Once consumers start seeing berries more often on the shelves their behavior will change, but it will take some time, as berries might still be considered a luxury fruit.