Case Study Argentina: Sustainable development of fruit production systems in south Patagonia.
Contrasting with a narrow N-S Andean sector, in the border with Chili, the Patagonian plateau is characterised by low annual rainfall (between 200 and 500 mm) (León et al., 1998; Naumann, 1999). Between 65 and 75 % of the time the wind blows from the W–SW, with maximum speed during the cherry growing season (between September and January) and minimum in winter (Paruelo et al., 1998; San Martino y Manavella, 2004). Mean annual temperatures vary from 8.2 °C to 13.5 °C in the different growing areas, and at all locations the chilling requirements of deciduous trees are easily satisfied. Soil heterogeneity, characterised by a wide range in textures is an important characteristic of the Patagonian valleys where cherries are grown. The main soil limitations are sodicity and/or salinity, insufficient drainage or shallow water tables. Apart from this, agro-ecological conditions in the valleys of South Patagonia (Fig. 1) are generally favourable for fruit production and various stakeholders are interested in development of the fruit sector, especially sweet cherry, seemingly the most profitable fruit crop. This crop demands about 2000 h of labour per ha per year (Cittadini et al., 2006), making it also attractive for policy makers in a country with a high unemployment rate.
Fruit tree production in south Patagonia
Fruit production is a traditional sector in north Patagonia (Neuquén and Río Negro Provinces), mainly in the upper valley of Río Negro, where most of the Argentinean apples and pears are produced. However, in south Patagonia (Chubut, Santa Cruz and Tierra del Fuego Provinces), its development has been rather limited. Apple and pear production had some importance in the past, but nowadays is restricted to the regional market, unable to compete with the main production areas. Walnut is present in many farms of the lower valley of Chubut River (LVCHR), but in small numbers, with low technology and oriented to self-consumption or, at most, to local markets as an occasional and complementary income. Some small experiences with peach production in Los Antiguos have faced serious complications with pests and diseases control, putting in evidence the importance of technical knowledge that growers and local technicians should have for developing new crops. Some growers have made interesting commercial trials exporting plums and apricots to Europe, going along with cherries, but in very small quantities. Sweet cherry (Prunus avium L.) production has been identified as one of the most promising activities, on the basis of its favourable production performance in the region and the identified marketing prospects in both the external and the domestic market. Growers from the LVCHR, Los Antiguos, Sarmiento and Comodoro Rivadavia have already been exporting sweet cherries to Europe. At the same time, provincial organisations and INTA have been supporting the development of this crop through applied research and extension, convinced of the possibilities for its expansion and success. Several private advisors in the different production areas contribute directly to knowledge transfer and development.
However, diversification towards other fruit-tree crops has not really started, neither the policies promote it. Different fruit crops need packing facilities and labour at different times of the season, they have similar commercial canals and they may use different soil types. Hence, even though sweet cherry seems the most profitable crop in the region, other fruit crops could be interesting options for as income complements and for risk diminution.
Fig. 1. Location of Patagonia (white area) and the main cherry production areas of the southern part (Chubut and Santa Cruz Provinces).
Sweet cherry production in south Patagonia
In South Patagonia, the total sweet cherry area has increased from 176 ha in 1997 to 578 ha at the end of 2006, of which 255 ha are located in Los Antiguos (46° 19’ SL; 220 m a.s.l.), 161 ha in the Lower Valley of Chubut River (LVCHR) (43° 16’ SL; 30 m a.s.l.), 99 ha in Sarmiento (45° 35’ SL; 270 m a.s.l.), 30 ha in Esquel (42° 55’ SL; 570 m a.s.l.) and 33 ha in Comodoro Rivadavia (45° 52’ SL; 50 m a.s.l.) (Cittadini, 2007).
Cherry fruits are harvested by hand-picking from November (LVCHR) till the end of January (Los Antiguos and Esquel). The labour demand for this operation during the 2006/2007 season was approximately 190,000 hours. In that season, 11 packinghouses processed 1619 Mg (demanding another 175,000 hours of labour) and exported 45% (729 Mg) to Europe (during the 2003/2004 season 470 Mg were produced, from which 190 Mg were exported). Another 45% was sold as fresh fruit in the domestic market and 10% went to industry. All packinghouses use hydro-cooling, classification belts, grading machines and cooling rooms for storage. Main export destinies of the fruit have been England, Spain and other European countries. Transport always includes a cooled truck to Buenos Aires (where also the second class fruit is sold for the domestic market). From there, most fruit goes to Europe by air. However, the ship transport that began with small commercial pilots in 2000, increased its participation in 2006/07 season, mainly due to the opening of the United States market, with promising results.
Marketing in counter-season compared to the Northern Hemisphere (Cittadini et al., 2007), results in high prices that had allowed the expansion of the crop with certain economical success. However, due to poor understanding of ecophysiological characteristics of the crops and un-proper management practices, yields are relatively low according to the intensity of the orchards systems used (lack of productivity) and cherry growers experience important production variability (lack of stability and reliability) and risk. In the valleys of south Patagonia, radiation spring frosts are an important source of yield variability if they are not actively controlled by using heaters or sprinkler irrigation (Cittadini et al., 2006; Manavella y Guerendiain, 1998). Pollination failure, wind damage (Monelos and Peri, 1998; Peri and Bloomberg, 2002), extreme temperatures (producing abortion or abnormal fruits) and rainfall near harvest time (producing fruit cracking) are also sources of yield (and fruit quality) variability. For an activity highly demanding in labour for very specific moments of the year (mainly harvest and packing), possibilities for getting personnel (quantity and qualification) will possibly be an increasing restriction in the near future (implications for both social and economical sustainability). But probably the major threat is market uncertainty, due to the dependency of the fruit sector of South Patagonia on only one product (sweet cherries) sold in just a few markets of Europe, making the sector very sensitive to price variations on these markets. Any restriction (commercial, sanitary, legal, etc.) suddenly imposed for cherries by the European Union could produce a collapse of the sector.
Moreover, the present success of the cherry business is based on high prices of the product in the export market. However, due to quality limitations, only part of the production can be exported (45 to 70%) and the rest has to be sold in the domestic market or sent to industry (5 to 10%). The domestic market pays much lower prices than the export market (circa 0.35 US$ per kg at farm level) and the situation will surely agravate in a near future, because the domestic market can get easily saturated and prices can rapidly decrease. Under that likely situation, the fraction of the production with enough quality to be exported will be an important aspect for economical success and quality analysis and critical control points throughout the horticultural chain will become critical.
Although with the present conditions the cherry business seems to be economically successful, the mono-cropping and the limited number of markets for export cherries are probably important sources of (potential) risk in the fruit sector of this region. Some stakeholders (growers, policy makers, researchers and advisors) are already aware of this situation, but so far alternatives for more sustainable development have not been clearly identified.
The risk is magnified by the fact that cherry is a perennial crop involving a high investment, and therefore adaptations are difficult and slow (lack of resilience and adaptability). This result in a curious situation of apparent success of the cherry sector in the region (based on relatively high prices), but under a high (potential) risk of collapse that would restrain not only future developments of this crop, but also any other possible alternatives for the future.
The ultimate goal of this research is to improve the sustainability of the fruit production sector of south Patagonia at economical, social and environmental level.
- To evaluate sustainability (economical, environmental and social) of the current and alternative (theoretical/model) systems in different cherry production areas of south Patagonia, differing in infrastructure, natural resources endowments, marketing channels and socioeconomic characteristics.
- To analyse risk (marketing, production, social problems, etc.) in the fruit sector of South Patagonia, identifying possibilities for improving sustainability (productivity, stability, reliability, resilience and adaptability) of the systems under different possible future scenarios and proposing policy briefs to drive future developments.
- To improve the effectivness of the system and strategy for research, knowledge transfer and rural development in the fruit sector of south Patagonia, developing and implementing a co-innovation approach that involves the different stakeholders.
- To improve the management of cherry quality throughout the horticultural chain.
The use of indicators for sustainability assessment has a long history, but there is a large number of indicators and methods to evaluate sustainability and it is difficult to generalise a method. Long (and fixed) lists of indicators are impractical and do not take into account the context of the system. On the other hand, when using indices is difficult to decide the weight assigned to each indicator; and the result is a single numerical value difficult to translate in specific recommendations for alternative systems.
The MESMIS framework (López Ridaura et al., 2000; 2002) seams appropriated as a basis to assess sustainability of production systems (both present and alternatives) and it has been applied to different case studies.
Based on this approach, the basic attributes of sustainability (productivity, stability, reliability, resilience and adaptability) will be assessed and strengthened in the fruit production systems of South Patagonia. For doing so, first those attributes have to be translated into criteria and relevant indicators have to be chosen in close collaboration with stakeholders to operationalise the analysis.
The main specific objectives of this case study will be approached through research conducted mainly by:
- Post-doc: Evaluation of sustainability in the fruit sector of south Patagonia.
- PhD: Analysis and reduction of risk in the fruit sector of south Patagonia.
- PhD: Improvement of the system and strategy for research, knowledge transfer and rural development in the fruit sector of south Patagonia, using a co-innovation approach.
- PhD: Quality analisis and critical control points in the horticultural chain of sweet cherries.
Permanent staff of INTA, researchers from local Universities, officers from Provincial governments, growers associations and other organisations will participate for specific topics.
The approach will involve several phases. The first phase will be to specify the perception of sustainability (expressed as goals or objectives of different stakeholders). Then, a set of indicators has to be defined. A following phase is the description and evaluation in terms of the indicator set of present farming systems (diagnosis). Alternative systems will be designed through modelling and co-innovation, combining agro-ecological and empirical knowledge, and then will be also evaluated with the same indicator set. This will allow comparison among present farming systems and with respect alternative options. Analysis will emphasise the trade-off between conflicting objectives, favouring transparent discussions with stakeholders about development options for a single farm or for categories of farms, re-thinking the indicator set or the definition of the system, or even the goals.
The general characteristics of Patagonian fruit production systems are being described and farms in each of the production areas are being characterized both qualitatively and quantitatively (farm typology (1); WP5). Based on this, farms of each production area will be selected to directly participate in EULACIAS. Main aspects to be solved in the framework of the project (2), and representative indicators to evaluate the changes, have to be discussed in close collaboration with stakeholders (WP2).
Literature review will be used to find out the most appropriate method for sustainability evaluation (WP5), taking as a starting reference the MESMIS framework, but the specific methodology will be defined during the Mexico workshop. Based on that, an evaluation framework will be built based on criteria and indicators in close collaboration with local stakeholders. Also, interaction with the other EULACIAS case studies will be important to agree on using a consistent methodology allowing comparison of results.
Sustainability of current and alternative (modelling) production systems will be evaluated under different future scenarios (WP4). Farm and regional models run under different scenarios (defined as coherent descriptions of alternative images of the future), seems to be a suitable tools to make better decisions in the present about issues that have long-term consequences in the future. Moreover, they may be useful to open the discussion with reluctant stakeholders analysing “what if” situations in a transparent manner (WP2). For developing scenarios, main regional drivers of development have to be identified (also using participatory techniques, WP2) and made explicit qualitatively and quantitatively.
(1) A farm typology study is being done in collaboration with Emilio Righi (Florence University). In that typology, eight classification variables are used: one describing scale (area with cherries), three to characterizing technology (planting density, percentage of area with drip irrigation and percentage of area with active frost control system), two in related to social impact (permanent and temporary employment requirement of the farm) and two related to organization and management (relation with advisers and organizartion for packing).
(2) In August 2007, an Impact Pathways workshop was held in Trelew, organized by the goup Fruticultura of INTA-EEA Chubut and with the collaboration of Sophie Álvarez (CIAT) and Diana Córdoba (Wageningen University) as facilitators. In that workshop participated producers, policy officers, researchers, private advisors and farm managers from the three production zones under study (Chubut valley, Sarmiento and Los Antiguos). Networks’ maps were participatively constructed and main demands were determined: training in fruit production for technicians, growers and workers, postgraduate training in rural development, design and implementation of a monitorying system, protocol for fruit quality management, identification of growers’ objectives, development of a new system of research and extension based on co-innovation, development of agroindustrial alternatives, support to associativism, availability of contract models for marketing the fruit, survey of alternatives and their quantification, design of an environmental monitoying system, strategies to promote links between policy makers (specially with regard credits) and fruit production specialists.
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