Continued frigid artic weather in Chile's key agricultural growing areas will cost the country at least US$200 million in loses, according the industry and government leaders. An estimated 85,000 sheep, cattle, pigs and goats have died for lack of food, and key fruit export crops, including avocados and citrus fruit, have been greatly damaged.
Harsh winter weather initially hit Chile the first week of August, damaging fruit and vegetable crops the length of Chile's Central Valley, the nation's key growing area. The cold weather intensified the second week of August, dumping snow on the capital city of Santiago for the first time in nine years and plunging temperatures well below the freezing mark. The cold front extends from Region IV north of Santiago, south through Region VIII, near Temuco. "The continued low temperatures are having a real impact on our winter time fruit and could also hurt our spring fruit, too," said Luis Schmidt, president of the National Agriculture Society, Chile's most important agriculture lobby group. "This has been the toughest winter we have seen in the past 50 years, and the latest snow storms means less exports, job losses, less fresh vegetables and an overall negative impact for regional and local economies," said Agriculture Minister Alvaro Rojas. Rojas added that 30 to 40 percent of citrus and 30 percent of avocados crops "can be considered as lost." Some reports peg the damage to Chile's orange export deal at 70 percent. Maritza Soto, an analyst working with Santiago-based fruit services firm Decofrut, has been tracking the on-going damage to Chile's avocado deal the past two weeks. "Until this most recent freeze yesterday, we had calculated a 38 percent drop in avocado exports from Chile as compared to last season, when the nation exported 165,000 tons," said Soto. "This is to say that Chile would export 105,000 tons this season. But that figure needs to be adjusted yet again, in view of this week's continued cold weather. Worse, there are fears that this kind of lengthy, hard freeze could crimp avocado production in the coming two years as well." Agricultural Minister Rojas said weather conditions during the balance of August will be crucial for Chile's table grapes, both wine and fresh fruit export grapes. "If current conditions continue, exports will suffer significantly, but if the weather improves, we could be luckier," said Rojas. Chile's cherry deal could also be impacted, should the cold weather extend into September. Carlos Videla, a farmer in Limache, just outside Olmué, said it is the coldest year he can remember, colder even that when two great cold spells hit the Central Valley back in 1964 and 1987. "Those frosts came just once. But this year there have been frosts almost every week. My crops cannot handle temperatures of 24 degrees Fahrenheit," said Videla, who said he had already lost 70 percent of his winter vegetable harvest. Avocado farmer Manuel Ponce said his crop is burned yellow by the cold weather and cannot be harvested. "We have never experienced anything like this before," said Ponce. "The avocados are falling out of the trees. This means that we will loose next year's flowering period. We are exporters, but we cannot sell this fruit. It has all been lost." Chile's US$2.2 billion fresh fruit industry supplies nearly half the fruit eaten in the U.S. and the EU during their winter months, providing large volumes of top quality table grapes, apples, pears, kiwifruit, cherries, stonefruit, and other fruit varieties. By Steve Anderson The Santiago Times