Q & A WITH GONZALO MERY OF SANTA ELENA AND TOMAS VIAL OF UNIFRUITTI
For this month’s Q&A, we speak with Gonzalo Mery of Santa Elena and Tomas Vial of Unifrutti. Gonzalo has been working in Santa Elena for the past 17 years and who started his journey in the company at the farms. As the Better Grower Program team just visited with our Chilean partners this month for the first time since the pandemic, we were able to get a firsthand look at the vineyards, but also address some common questions related to the season. Let’s dive into this month’s 5 for 5.
Q1: As many in the industry know, Chile is a major country for fruit export to the US and the world. In the last few seasons, there has been some unfortunate variables the country has faced whether it is related to water, inclement weather, or logistical problems at the port. Regardless of these variables, what are some items to focus on or some areas to improve?
Gonzalo Mery- “For table grapes, we are constantly analyzing every variable and this is why we are at the top of the Chilean industry. At the end of the season, we look at the varieties we grow and see how they responded. If they are new varieties, we’ll keep some product here in our cold storage warehouses to see how that fruit responds in two months. For us, this gives us feedback of how those grapes and their shelf life should respond in the markets.
Q2: Which varieties are Chile currently producing? And for grape growers, tell us what values are most important to your company.
Tomas Vial- “There are many varieties being produced all throughout Chile these days. Many advanced grape growers here in Chile are currently transitioning from traditional varieties to new ones which we believe is important as there is a market demand for them. At Unifruitti, we currently produce many grape varieties across the board whether this is Sweet Celebration, Timpson, Allison, Timco, Sable Seedless, Sweet Favors, etc. As grape growers, it is important to our company to always focus on quality and flavor- something we constantly emphasize with all our vineyards and packing houses.
Fruit from Chile must travel a far way to reach the markets and the final consumer so we need to put a lot of time and energy producing outstanding and flavorful fruit capable of withstanding the journey. Additionally, here at Unifruitti, we focus on customer service. Customer service with Divine Flavor, who is our partner for the US, but also with all parts of the supply chain. Customer service in this business is a must”.
Q3: Being a big part of the growing side, but also the exporting side, what benefits does this give your company having control over both?
Gonzalo Mery- “All fruit coming from Chile to other international markets needs to go through exportation. If your company is not in line with one another, there will be no synchronization and ultimately, the fruit is what suffers the most. Being both the grower and the exporter, we are able to control the variables in our favor much better. Having a partnership with Divine Flavor, we know there’s a pathway for our fruit to reach retailers and the consumers. On the grower side, we have a solid foundation of how to grow great fruit. Being the exporter allows to control the middle ground. All of this together allows for complete control of the supply chain. The exporter, which in our case is Santa Elena and this is part of the commercial team, we have the ability to get direct feedback from Divine Flavor and relay it to our growers which for the most part are the same company. We get to have a strategic dynamic constantly and analyzing the feedback from Divine Flavor. For example, when we start the Cotton Candy production, we already know exactly when and where it’s going to be and with which customers. Other growers and exporters don’t have this luxury and sometimes have no idea where their final product is going.”
Q4: What is the update on the Chilean season and what do you expect in the next 3-4 weeks?
Tomas Vial- “Up in the north, we were slightly delayed around 2 weeks which puts a little more tension on the central valley. It’s going to give a lot of volume for the next 2-3 weeks which something Chile hasn’t experienced in a few years (weather and water issues). Regarding the logistics, we are looking to be in a better situation this year with the shipping lines and the ports of destination. This season, our company is greatly putting an emphasis on quality. In the next 3-4 weeks, it will be the peak part of the season so we will be working extra careful to make sure our quality control properly manages the quality of the fruit as the expected volume increases. The season, we are expecting around 10 million less boxes so this should put us around 66 million cases. The hottest varieties from a market value are of course Sweet Globe and Autumn Crisp. For the reds, it is Sweet Celebration, Allison, and Jack Salute. For blacks, this color only accounts for 10% of total production and is usually marketed to other countries in Asia, but we do produce some for the US such as Sable, Sweet Favors, and Melody.
Q5: What keeps you going in this industry? What is your passion?
Gonzalo Mery- “If you don’t love what you do, it is impossible to be happy and successful at it. This is a 24/7, 365 days a year type of business and to keep going, you need to have passion to understand what we are doing. You not only need to know what to do here, but also there 10,000 KM away (Gonzalo referring to the final destination). This industry is built off passion.
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