Belgian cooperative BelOrta posted a record annual turnover of €497m for 2021, in spite of a year of uncertainty and challenges, including Covid-19, a wet summer, scarce raw materials and high energy costs.
Market conditions may have varied for each product, but the commitment of BelOrta's growers remained unchanged, the cooperative revealed.
According to BelOrta, a drop in tomato volumes was somewhat offset by higher prices brought on by Spain's lower acreage and the cold spell experienced in southern Europe.
Increasing competition from cheaper producers in the south and expansion of production in places like Poland reportedly made pricing difficult for a number of vegetables including courgettes, peppers and aubergines.
While asparagus and leeks enjoyed decent spring prices due to limited supplies, sales of both products grew more difficult as the year, and volumes, progressed.
Growing supplies of winter cauliflower have extended the season, allowing BelOrta to offer locally produced cauliflower throughout the winter.
According to the cooperative, lower volumes of chicory in 2020 ensured that chicory supplies remained manageable for a large part of 2021.
"The beginning of the year saw a balanced market with correct prices," BelOrta stated. "A cold spring led to good demand and good prices in April and May. A mild September hit demand for chicory, but the market revived in October and early November with better prices. December, on the other hand, saw larger international supplies. Combined with the mild weather, this led to a more difficult market."
The wettest summer on record reduced production and consumption of berries. Meanwhile, the cherry harvest landed in the middle of exceptionally high rainfall, leading to a limited harvest.
Low supplies of apples reportedly fetched reasonable prices in the spring of 2021, while the large harvest in the autumn, combined with high volumes from central and eastern Europe, resulted in a difficult market situation.
"For pears, we saw the reverse story," BelOrta reported, "with a large harvest and a more difficult market in the spring and a smaller European harvest with better prices in the autumn."
Sustainability stays central
The unfavourable weather failed to prevent BelOrta's growers from further expanding their organic acreage. Last year saw organic asparagus become available at BelOrta for the first time. Organic cucumbers, chicory and on-the-vine tomatoes remain the three top products in the organic range.
In 2021, BelOrta launched the Earth label for products in transition to organic. "With this we want to provide both trade and consumers with more and better information and at the same time create better market opportunities for these fruit and vegetables in transition," the cooperative said.
BelOrta continued on its sustainable path in 2021, including its anti-waste drive with Too Good To Go, its development of fully recyclable rPET strawberry punnets and its switch to collapsable green boxes. 2021 also saw the launch of the BelOrta Greenhouse, the world's first hybrid food truck greenhouse.
Growers rise to challenge
In 2022, BelOrta revealed plans to continue the marketing effort of last year, putting greater emphasis on the cooperative's growers as ambassadors.
"Thanks to the unremitting efforts and dedication of our growers, we were able to continuously serve Belgian consumers last year with delicious fresh fruit and vegetables, regardless of lockdowns, catering closures, health crises, etc," it stated.
"Rising logistics, energy and labor costs, general inflation, the next Brexit phase, long delivery times and a lot of uncertainty about the availability of raw materials are a source of concern," BelOrta continued. "In addition, there is also the market that is constantly changing with new retail models and consumer expectations, whereby quick switching is the message. BelOrta continues to invest in research into diversification for our growers. Promising new varieties and types of fruit and vegetables will be introduced and will enrich the offer. In this way we look positively ahead."