India could be on course for a sizeable increase in table grape shipments to Europe this year, with industry reports indicating a sharp rise in the number of farmers registering for export, and favourable growing conditions thus far.
Shirish Khothare of Shree Consultants, a key table grape export broker, believes EU-bound export volumes may increase by around 20 per cent in 2017.
“The climate has been very conducive for grape growing and the initial bunch load is very limited, hence we expect a good-quality crop provided the weather holds for the remaining season,” said Khothare. “Also, the amount of farmers planning to grow for export has increased considerably. Up to now (late October), around 40,000 farmers have registered with the authorities compared to 29,000 farmers last season.”
The exact number of farmers registered for export to Europe will only be known in early December, once registrations close at the end of this month, according to Vikram Puri, CEO of major Indian table grape exporter Mahindra ShubhLabh Services (MSSL), but he agreed that there is likely to be an increase.
“Farmers are increasingly opting for cultivating fruit for Europe due to good returns from exporters last season and low rates for domestic sales,” he noted.
Another factor that could bump up the number of growers registered for export is the Dutch-led IDH Sustainable Grapes Initiative, which is aimed at building farmers’ export capacity, according to Azhar Tambuwala of table grape grower-exporter Sayhadri Farms. “They intend to register around 3,000 growers, which would see a 30 per cent increase [in the number of farmers] before we have even factored in new growers,” Tambuwala said.
Pruning for an early start
The Indian industry is also gearing up to commence exports early, drawn by the potential for higher returns.
“The past three or four years [with the exception of 2015] have seen higher fruit prices during the early part of the season, especially in January/February,” noted Puri. “Based on this experience, farmers started pruning in the first two weeks of September, but then there was rain so they had to wait for clear weather. Pruning resumed and picked up again in the last week of September and the first week of October.”
Puri predicts that packing for Europe will start as early as the first week of January, but expects limited volumes for the first three weeks of January due to late pruning in September. “The availability and export movement will pick up from week 4 and peak in week 6,” he said.
Quality for the main export season is shaping up well at this stage. “Due to the drought over the past two years and good rains this year, the fruit set has been lighter as the vines were weaker,” said Tambuwala. “This also means quality could be better and volumes should be sufficient for about 8,000 container loads.”
Puri is more conservative on volume projections. “Based on the volume targeted by various exporters, exports will be in the range of 6,000-6,500 containers,” he predicted. “However, in March and based on price forecasts in Europe, exporters will decide whether to increase or decrease volumes.”
While the main export campaign for Europe kicks off in the new year, early season export shipments, which span October to December, are already under way despite some weather disruption. “Rain hit the fruit quality of the early plots which were ready in October, so they could be packed for export,” Puri explains. “But plots ready in November are relatively okay and packing started in the first week of November. We expect the industry to export a few containers to Europe, Russia and the Middle East.”
Looking beyond Europe
Although Europe remains the major focus for Indian exporters, they are gradually building their presence in other markets. While opportunities beckon in Asia, India currently lacks enough production of the right varieties for the market in terms of colour and berry size, according to key players in the industry. “Asia requires a higher quality and India is yet to learn this correctly,” said Tambuwala. “The potential is there, but we need to prepare ourselves better.”
Canada has also opened its doors to Indian grapes, and after a couple of test shipments last year, the industry is expected to start shipping in earnest in 2017. Despite the long distance, exporters are keen to explore opportunities there. “Canada is early days yet and the one or two containers that went received a mixed reaction,” said Tambuwala. “We did not match up to Chilean quality or the expectation of the Canadian consumer, but from what I hear, there is space to continue trying the market and explore.”