José Carlos García Rubio has worked with blueberries for more than 30 years. When he started, he worked for the SERIDA (Regional Agrifood Research and Development Service) and on a project about “growing and adaptation of kiwis and small fruits on the Cantabrian coast”, in which they wanted to include a real economic study of a 1-hectare blueberry plantation. They looked for a farmer who wanted to take part in the study, but they did not find it, so finally he decided to do it himself. He did it in a state of his father, a livestock farmer who was about to retire, and he became involved in the project. In return for providing real data of the farming in that state, the SERIDA supplied him with the plants. He cultivated the plantation in 1989 and, 10 years later, the economic study was published and submitted in a congress in Chile.
Obviously, since then, things have changed a lot: the technology used, the plant densities, the varieties… The plants have been growing and producing more. He tells us that they produced 500 kg in the first harvest (the third year of planting), and that today, we should multiply this amount by 6. But he adds in a fun way: “even better this way, because I sold the 500 kg, but I wouldn’t have been able to sell 1 kg more.” In the second year, they produced 1500 kg. They sold 500 kg fresh, and the rest were frozen, and he kept them at home until a small company which produced jams and other processed products appeared. No one knew blueberries at that time. However, he continued, producing every year more and more until reaching 12 000 kg/hectare in the 10th year, the year when they finished the economic study.
Then, he installed the irrigation system, he covered part of the lands in order to advance the harvest of some varieties and stay longer in the market. By the end of the 1990s, the sales increased significantly (although they were nothing compared to the sales data nowadays), and they continued increasing until: “at the beginning, you don’t know where to sell them, and later, you have little fruit to sell. It is impossible to have the right measure,” he tells us.
Along the way, the varieties are not the same as those initially planted. Juan Carlos used grafting to make the change. This technology had not been used before for blueberries because, unlike fruit trees and other species for which it is used, the blueberry plant is a shrub with many branches. He did not want to throw away all those years of farming by pulling out and planting new plants. “My religion didn’t allow me to do it,” he tells us. And although it was complicated, he succeeded. Economically, it was a big success, because it avoided moving the earth, preparing the soil again, reinstalling the irrigation system, planting… the difference was very important, with grafting it was only necessary to cut the plants, engraft and lose only a harvest year. The following year, they recovered the amount of crop previous to the change. The data collected were written down in a study that he published on the SERIDA website, and which caught the attention of countries like Chile and the USA. In fact, the biggest nursery in the world, Fall Creek, which has its home office in Oregon, was so surprised with the results that they wanted to see it in situ, and surprised, they could not stop asking themselves: How didn’t we come up with this idea?
Since then, this technology has been used for genetic improvement, to speed up the process of putting varieties on the market, like this nursery in the USA, and also in variety changes, adapting them to the needs and tastes of the current markets, such as for example, in Chile. In fact, Juan Carlos has been invited to present his study at the 18th International Blueberries Seminar of Chile 2021.
Arándanos El Cierrón is also a nursery, because it was an activity which did not exist at a national level. Juan Carlos started to provide this service while his plantations were progressing. Nowadays it is his son, Adrián, who takes his place and manages the nursery. Now, the activity is not only focused on the business customer, to whom he sells a small plant, with an adjusted price. He also considers enthusiasts, private customers and small vegetable gardens, through online sale, and he grows for them bigger plants which are about to produce the following year of their purchase. In addition to this, he has applied for the organic farming logo/certification, which they are going to get next year.
And it works, it works so well that they need to expand, and they are looking for estates where they can do it. Another activity in which they are expanding is advice. Advisory projects in China, Azerbaijan, Spain (in other regions): “I wanted to retire, but I have more and more work.”
And when we ask him if blueberries consumption has changed in recent years, he tells us that, in 2000, Spain consumption was at 5 g per capita. Today, we exceed 200 g. The average in Northern Europe is currently at 250g. But the most surprising finding is the data in the USA, the country that has been eating blueberries all its life (even the Indians ate wild blueberries) and that domesticated this farming just over a century ago. In 2000, the country was at 250 g per capita, but today it exceeds 1 kg. Germany and England are close to this data, they must be over 700 gr, and many countries are increasing their blueberries consumption. There is no other fruit in the world so young and with such a fast growth “It is so good for everything. No one wants to die early, so everybody eats blueberries,” he smiles.
Thank you Juan Carlos García and Arándanos El Cierrón, for being so close, for teaching us and join us in our adventure of planting blueberries in Priorat.