2019 Conference - Chile

In February 2019 the NextGen Fruit Group travelled to Chile. Organised by Emily Cliff and her committee, it was an excellent trip that was insightful and a fantastic opportunity to experience the Chilean fruit growing industry. NextGen were joined by Ed Leahy from the fresh produce journal and this is what he had to say about the trip…

‘The kids are alright

The Under 40’s Fruit Growers went the distance for their biennial conference this year, travelling to Chile for a six-day tour of its fruit industry. Ed Leahy joined the group as it aims to grow its brand.

Among the poetic backdrop of the Andes, in a country with an artistic legacy boasting Pablo Neruda, Roberto Matta and Isabel Allende, the art of growing fruit in Chile finds a suitable stage. It was a fitting place, too, for the UK’s young fruit growers, agronomists and suppliers to find inspiration, with a 49-strong group of Under 40s Fruit Growers flying over 7,000 miles to the fruit-producing powerhouse earlier this month.

The group was keeping up a tradition of strong relations between Chile and the UK, with Britain’s links to the world’s narrowest country beginning with support for its war of independence against Spain at the start of the 19th century. 

Strong relations are indeed what the Under 40s are all about, between countries, industries, but most of all, people. The group is unique in its ability to bring together members of Britain’s fruit-growing sector into a community of shared interests, passions and, ultimately, business and technical expertise.

Outgoing chairwoman Emily Cliff says the Under 40s, now in its 52nd year, provides a platform to broaden minds when it is all too easy to remain confined to one’s own work. “The Under 40s aims to promote networking between growers and to have open conversations, to broaden horizons, and the conferences are the focal point of the two years we are a committee,” she said.

The group’s biennial conferences abroad are only possible with industry support, and this year 35 sponsors provided the committee with the sum needed to achieve such a grand operation. After putting different countries into the hat, Chile came out as favourite to host what was a diverse group of industry delegates, from breeders to machinery salesmen.

“We are quite different to Chile in the UK,” says Cliff. “Their focus is on exports but I think what’s so interesting about Chile is that if you have a group that is focused on exporting fruit you can see what the possibilities are and see different business models. We talk about technical details on the trip but we are also talking about businesses.” 

Describing the Under 40s as a networking group underplays the real community that such tours create, however. Matthew Goodson, specialities marketing manager for sponsor BASF, says: “Being able to talk to the generation of growers who are a similar age to me is a great opportunity to make friends and this will last throughout our careers.”

Thanks to brilliant work by the Under 40s committee, the group managed to pack in a huge amount in less than one week, with each day providing a snapshot of Chile’s vast industry. First up, and straight off the 14-hour flight, was a trip to cherry, apple and sweetcorn producer Sebastian Atal’s farm, 200km south of Santiago. Atal was the ideal place to begin as a farmer who started with nothing 20 years ago, and has built his business in line with Chile’s phenomenal exporting growth in the preceding decades, now achieving 80 tonnes per hectare of Pink Lady, mostly for the Chinese market.

With Chile’s unique geography and different economic circumstances, delegates quickly saw novel examples of production methods in the southern hemisphere. The second day saw an early morning visit to a farm for fresh and prepared business Fundo Sofruco, managed by Andrés O’Ryan, who oversees 230ha of kiwis, plums, avocados and mandarins. O’Ryan says the site is home to the most southerly citrus production in Chile.

The cold nights in the region posed a major threat to O’Ryan’s avocados, which die in a matter of hours in sub-zero temperatures and frost. In response, the farm has installed multiple wind turbines, towering over the crops to help drive warm air across the soil, with assistance from helicopters overhead.

The turbines were indicative of the sheer scale Chile has achieved in fruit production. Nowhere encapsulated this more than Ricardo Ariztía’s massive 1,800ha Quilhuica farm on day five, where he grows avocados, walnuts, mandarins and lemons for Subsole. “The idea is to have stable production throughout the year. We pick every day,” said Ariztía. The effect of avocado demand was clear on Ariztía’s farm, with plantations reaching up into steep hills, where pickers need to wear football boots to grip the treacherous terrain. He told delegates that he plans to export his first batch of Gem avocados to the UK at the end of the year.

Ariztía’s giant farm also revealed another notable aspect to Chilean farming, namely backing from US capital markets. The farm received investment from a Utah pension fund, giving it a substantial capital boost. Salih Hodzhov, production and operations manager at berry growers Chambers, says the willingness of Chileans to invest was a key takeaway from the trip for him. “The main thing I learned was how they used a lot of capital to start with, and if you invest a lot you can succeed quicker. They can take so much profit, which makes decision making easier.”

Day three of the trip also saw the group travel to Chile’s second-largest exporter Frusan, where they were given a grand tour of its San Fernando packing facilities, featuring a 37-lane apple washer, set among towers of crates resembling Aztec ziggurats. The company churns out 11 million boxes of fruit per year, from over 8,000ha of orchards across Chile and Peru. It is also the largest exporter of fruit from Chile to the UK, sending 12 million kg in 2017-2018.

The tour featured more than fruit production, however, with an afternoon experiencing the life of an “arriero”, a Chilean cowboy, according to host and winemaker Benjamín Labbé, who also produces walnuts, cherries and plums. The Under 40s saddled up and rode across majestic scenery resembling a spaghetti western on an unforgettable afternoon, before enjoying an evening at Labbé’s Bodeguita del Farol.

Wine was a new category for the Under 40s, with a first trip to a vineyard producing grapes for Errazuriz winemakers. Managed by Carlos Carrasco, it boasts the first machine-planted vines across a 70ha site, and several members of Britain’s nascent wine industry attended the visit.

The week was capped with a suitably grand send-off at the Under 40s Gala Dinner, where the committee handed over the reins to a new team. It was appropriate that outgoing chairwoman Cliff received the loudest applause for her efforts in the past two years to grow the Under 40s membership and increase its presence at a critical time for the UK industry. ‘

Alex Myatt