The production of blueberries in Asturias takes up about 200 hectares of plantations. The first farms, located in Tineo, are at least 30 years old, and most are usually small plantations of between one and two hectares. There are two Asturian cooperatives of blueberry producers. The most recent was created in June 2015 and, under the name Picos de Asturias Berries, brings together 17 producers of blueberries and red fruits, which is the majority of those based in eastern Asturias. "In Spain, there was no tradition of eating blueberries, like in northern Europe and the UK. The product started gaining popularity three or four years ago and is now a booming product, because it is very rich in antioxidants. It is also becoming more widely available, as in the past there was practically no chance of finding fresh blueberries at big retailers, explains the president of the cooperative Picos de Europa, Jesús Atienza, which this year marketed about 30,000 kilos of blueberries.
He adds that "Asturian blueberries have a much higher quality than those from Huelva due to the weather. The lands that we have here are better and, although blueberries can be planted even in sand, in Asturias the soil is one of the best; you can plant anything and it will grow. It is a productive land that needs fewer fertilisers than in other parts of Spain. We have the perfect soil and climate and that shows in the taste. Moreover, the time of the harvest and production of Asturian blueberries, just like in other parts of northern of Spain, goes from mid-June to the end of October.
Young plantations that take 25 hectares
"When we finish producing in October, the blueberries from South America hit the market, from countries like Argentina, Chile or Peru, but it does not affect us, because it is a different time. And the same goes for those from Huelva or Morocco, which arrive in the spring. We start then and, because of the Asturian climate, we have the perfect window, because there is almost no competition," explains Atienza, who points out that most of the production supplied by the cooperative goes to the domestic market, with a small part shipped overseas and some always remaining in Asturias.
For the next season, they aim to obtain the certification of good product and good practices granted by the European Union. The plantations of this cooperative total some 25 hectares, with both organic and conventional crops, and they are quite young. To produce blueberries, it is necessary to remove the flowers in the first two years for the plant to develop. "The plantations reach their peak in terms of productivity from the sixth year onwards. We have partners with plantations that have not yet become productive this past summer. As a cooperative, we have not hit the market with a full production, but we are going step by step; that gives us flexibility to gradually enter the market," points out Atienza.
"On your own, you do not have enough volume to enter the market, so you have to join forces." Each hectare of land usually yields an average of 12 tonnes of fruit. "In four or five years, we will be able to produce about 300 tonnes, since we have all kinds of plantations: some set up four or five years ago, some three years ago and others that will become productive next year," he explains, stating that although most of the Cooperatives are from the east, from municipalities such as Cangas de Onís, Onís, Cabrales, Peñamellera Baja, Panes, Llanes, Piloña or Nava, there are also partners with plantations in Quirós, Morcín and Llanera.
The talks between producers to create the Picos de Europa Berries cooperative go back to 2014. "The plantations in Asturias are small on average and on your own you do not have enough volume to hit the market and have a presence at fairs," explains Atienza. "In order to bring costs down and have a better marketing, we had to join forces. We cannot go out into the world alone, and we also think that the profits generated by those sales should be for us instead of for intermediaries devoted to the marketing of blueberries," he affirms.
Each partner contributes a part of its production, but also sells in the local market
The main rule for all partners of Picos de Europa Berries is that each contributes some of its production to the cooperative, "but we also do not discourage small sales to local stores and going to fairs or markets." In this year's season, the cooperative hired a worker to collect the product from all the farms, already packaged and labelled, to take it to the logistics centre of Silvota, from where it was shipped to the points of sale.
"Our first experience was in the 2015 campaign and this year we have been improving. The purchases of the packs and cardboard boxes are done jointly and that brings costs down," he states. In order for a new member to join, the cooperative sets a requirement to meet all the legal requirements and to have a minimum of 1,500 red fruit plants, providing also the volume of fruit agreed in the rules for joint marketing.
"We are going to need staff for the harvest next season"
Atienza acknowledges that blueberries, which are sold in 125-gram containers, are not a cheap product. "They are expensive because the harvest is done manually and one by one. In a day, a person does not usually collect more than 25 or 30 kilos," he explains, noting that for the next season, given that the production on the cooperative's farms will increase, "we are going to need a lot of people to harvest them."
In fact, the idea that the partners have is to imitate the model that applies to day labourers who pick strawberries, grapes or other fruits in season, "as it is done in Huelva, even though the plantations there are bigger than our 17 combined," says Atienza, who explains that the cooperative, in partnership with the social services of the Town Councils of Cabranes and Llanes, has taught blueberry pruning and harvesting courses. "In some cases, we have called people who attended, but are not ready for fear of losing their social wage. And at a particular level, we find it impossible to find people," explains Atienza, who estimates that they will need between twenty and thirty day labourers.
The work would be flexible: one week, 15 days, one month or two months. "The problem is that in summer the hospitality sector is at its peak and we cannot pay more than the minimum professional wage. We are seeing that it is practically impossible to find people in Asturias." Employment services may be used to find workers and, if this doesn't yield results, they would consider trying to find them in Huelva.