Rather suddenly, blueberries have become a prominent product in Georgia, in markets, supermarkets and on street corners. Trade figures show a surge of exports, too. According to official data, exports quintupled from 2019 to 2021, and now stand at more than USD 5 m.
While exports so far have primarily gone to Russia, berries had also been highlighted as a product with high export potential to the EU. To achieve such exports, gaps in know-how, value chains, infrastructure and certification need to be addressed. If the right measures are undertaken, Georgia has a reasonable prospect of sustaining its blueberry boom.
Almost anywhere in Western Georgia you now see them popping up: blueberry fields with mounds of earth, covered with a strip of black foil to keep out weeds, and drip irrigation running along. The bushes are small initially and grow to maturity in three to four years. With many new fields planted, the blueberry production volumes are expected to increase greatly over the next years.
Limited contribution of agriculture to GDP
Overall, as often highlighted, with approx. 7% of GDP, agriculture contributes less than one could expect to Georgia’s economy. Some products, however, show breakout dynamics, or at least strong potential, including blueberries (see PB/02/2019). They are the most recent focus, especially in Western Georgia with its more acidic soil. This momentum has developed largely due to a handful of companies who demonstrated that blueberries – especially the varieties of Bluecrop, Duke and Legacy – are a viable product. Donor assistance also played a role. USAID has contributed consulting and seedling imports. The government, in turn, supports new orchards with its “Plant the Future” program. Some commercial banks offer targeted financing tools to farmers who want to venture into blueberry farming.
One indicator of the strong interest is that land prices in Western Georgia have almost doubled since 2018, with prices now at USD 8,000 or more per hectare. The prospect of selling a kilogramme of blueberry at EUR 5 or more has made the investment appear attractive.
Year-on-year growth of blueberry exports has been spectacular, multiplying many times over. Official figures likely are underreporting the blueberry surge. Sector insiders claim that there are exports to Russia via Gali/Abkhazia which would not be recorded in official figures. This route appears likely, too, as the additional 300 km over the Georgian Military Highway is not ideal for a perishable product. Many producers say that they are not involved in export, as their clients pay at the farmgate, adding to the uncertainty about official figures.
At the same time, the strong dependency on the Russian market is a major concern, now heightened by geo-politics. Reorienting to other markets, including the EU, will become all the more important to sustain the boom.
Challenges with know-how and small harvest window
The sector faces some intrinsic challenges. Many farmers with limited experience have crowded into the field. One sector insider says that “more than half” of the orchards are not set up properly. Among other things, planting beds should be 40 cm high; many appear too shallow. As it stands, many blueberry farms are exposed to sizeable loss as they lack wind shelter and protection from the birds that are also discovering the berry’s charms. Many farmers are too optimistic on the yield and price stability, while underestimating the need for maintenance, which can require more than EUR 3,000 a year per hectare for fertilizer and fungicide.
Right now, it appears that few farmers harvest more than five tons of blueberry per hectare, though promotional spreadsheets by some banks suggest more than twice that yield is possible. Mid-term, some farmers are likely to struggle, especially if they have taken out sizeable loans.
There are more fundamental challenges, too. The harvest window is short, as all berries should be collected before the July heat sets in. The high precipitation close to the Black Sea further limits the available harvest days. A good harvester can collect up to 60 kg of blueberries a day. But even with such performances, some fields remained unharvested in 2021 as farmers could not find enough workers. A peculiar challenge can be that some people in rural areas fear losing their social assistance if they receive income. (It has been reported that workers provided the ID number of relatives to avoid being linked to payments.)
Higher capital investment could address some challenges. For example, a comprehensive overhead cover from rain, birds and pests can increase the days available for harvest and protect the crop, but costs of up to EUR 50,000 per hectare make this unaffordable for most Georgian farmers. Under existing legislation, foreign investors require special permission to own a majority share of an agricultural venture. In practice, this seems hard to obtain.
In positive news for the rural population, salaries for harvesting across all sectors in Western Georgia have increased significantly – by as much as 70% in comparison with previous years – as there is high demand for reliable workers.
Value chain underdeveloped
For the boom to sustain itself, the overall value chain for blueberries needs to develop. Currently, there are few qualified local nurseries. Many seedlings are sourced from abroad, including Poland. As blueberries are a dynamic sector with many proprietary varieties, Georgia must ensure reliable protection of such varieties (as also foreseen by the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, DCFTA), to continue to have access to the leading edge of development in the field.
There are few local agronomists with relevant experience. Established companies worry that poor quality from inexperienced producers may undercut the nascent reputation of the Georgian blueberry industry.
The industry overall lacks infrastructure. There still are not enough cold storage facilities, especially close to the harvesting areas. There is no air cargo from Western Georgia for agricultural exports. One of the pioneers of the sector, Ekaterine Vepkhvadze, qualified also with an MBA from the Grenoble School of Management, posted pictures of herself taking blueberries to Tbilisi airport for export to the Gulf States, perhaps illustrating that the transport and export chains are still in the process of being built.
In order to also increase exports to the EU, key certifications such as Global G.A.P. would need to be introduced much more widely. Many EU supermarkets require this certification. Given that farmers could sell to Russian clients at the same price as to EU customers, so far not many have made that effort.
The strong increase in blueberry production validates the previous assessment that agriculture in Georgia has strong potential, especially if it develops in clusters. In the next years, blueberry quantity in Georgia is likely to increase greatly, given the extensive new plantings. Some reversals seem inevitable. Targeted intervention – training, infrastructure, certification – can help mitigate some of those risks, and could help Georgia sustain this promising boom.
This newsletter is based on a forthcoming Policy Briefing. Further information on the export potential for agricultural goods is provided by the Policy Briefing “Export potential of Georgia’s agro-food sector on the EU market and other non-CIS countries”.