Given challenging weather conditions, rising costs and a drop in berry consumption, good marketing is essential at this time, says Jan Engelen, marketing manager at Belgian cooperative Hoogstraten, whose messaging focuses on quality, flavour and sustainability

How is the European market performing for Hoogstraten’s strawberries at the moment?

Jan Engelen: The season has been disrupted by a lot of challenges, including higher costs and lower consumption. The spring was difficult for Hoogstraten’s strawberries, with low prices, high volumes and low demand. Eastern European growers are increasingly looking to supply to our markets. France and Scandinavia are the most important markets for Hoogstraten strawberries at the moment, while Germany will become more important in the coming weeks due to lower domestic production.

How are your blueberries and other berries developing?

JE: Blueberries are looking excellent this year. The frost during the flowering period was a little challenging, but fortunately our growers suffered manageable damage. And the beautiful spring weather ensured excellent quality blueberries. We expect 180 tonnes of blueberries this year. The total acreage hasn’t increased, but the bushes are older and are generating higher volumes than last year. We are hoping for a great season and are happy to inspire people to get started with Belgian blueberries.

The supply of raspberries and blackberries will increase rapidly in the coming weeks. This year we launched a mixed berry snack pack, aimed at the breakfast segment. As we have different soft fruit lines like blueberries, raspberries and blackberries in our portfolio, a mixed pack with strawberries is a quick fix. The cherry season also recently launched at Hoogstraten, and we are expecting around 50 tonnes.

Are you targeting any particular markets or regions for growth at the moment?

JE: During the autumn and winter, the UK is an important market for Hoogstraten strawberries. We aim for growth this year. Last year we developed a B2B campaign for the first time in the UK to promote fresh, quality produce from Belgium, specifically during the autumn.

Are there any exciting new varieties that you are looking at?

JE: This year we are holding tasting sessions supervised by our quality department to test different strawberry varieties. The main objective of these sessions is to judge new varieties on taste, presentation and shelf-life. The results will be analysed by our quality department and communicated back to the strawberry growers. Our main variety is still Elsanta, but we see a stronger trend than ever before toward new promising varieties. Of course the Hoogstraten brand will always be a guarantee for high-quality, tasty strawberries.

We are also organising B2B tasting days at the end of June, including a visit to a blueberry farm and the Hoogstraten Research Centre, in order to discover the new technologies for varietal research, sustainable production and innovation.

What are the main challenges right now? Are rising costs upping the pressure on growers? Are you affected by worker shortages at all?

JE: Like many other food producers, Coöperatie Hoogstraten is facing a challenging season characterised by increasing costs of energy, raw materials, labour and services, all of which have a major impact on margins. High gas prices and subsequent lower energy use are also a challenge, leading to later glasshouse production and putting returns to growers under severe pressure. These challenges have a long-lasting effect on our production.

At the moment our strawberry growers are carefully considering the prospects for strawberries in the autumn and winter. Every grower needs to choose the most realistic option for cultivation at the end of the year. If the retail and wholesale sector are not able to pay the price needed to grow strawberries in autumn and winter with these high added costs, this will have an effect on the available volume of Hoogstraten strawberries during these months.

Where does sustainability fit in, whether it be packaging, pesticides or living wages, given such huge challenges?

JE: Minimising negative effects on the local community and the environment is a priority for Hoogstraten. We always work according to sustainable methods and stimulate sustainable entrepreneurship among our growers. Examples of methods adopted by growers include bee pollination and using environmentally friendly biopesticides to control harmful insects. It is the role of Hoogstraten to support all members with targeted advice about the use of natural resources and CO2 reductions, amongst many other topics.

However, it is not easy to comply with all the requirements from different clients in Europe. Everyone has their own demands regarding sustainability and in these difficult times we want to limit the excessive administrative burden on growers. On top of that, there is no European tool to compare the data on carbon footprints at the moment. It is very difficult to communicate with quantitative data due to the different measurements. Sustainable growth starts with our growers and employees, but also with our clients, suppliers, the government and other stakeholders. We need to act together in order to fulfil our central role within the chain and make the food chain more sustainable.

The 4th International Strawberry Congress returns to Antwerp on 21-24 September, promising an outstanding programme of presentations, discussion and practical demonstrations based around the key topic of digitalisation and sustainability.

Are you engaged in any marketing or promotional campaigns to boost consumption?

JE: As the UK is an important market for Hoogstraten strawberries in autumn, we launched our first strawberry marketing campaign in the UK this year, highlighting our premium fresh fruit, available all year round and supplied directly from Belgium. Berry quality, flavour and sustainability were at the forefront of the campaign.

In these difficult times of high costs, consumers might consider strawberries, and berries in general, a bit of a luxury item and therefore reduce their purchases. That’s why a good marketing and promotional campaign is essential. In Belgium, our promotional campaign focuses on customer intimacy. Experience is the key word. We developed short videos of our growers to tell the story behind the product, connecting production and consumption, and we work with foodies to inspire our consumers and implement in-store actions with custom-made packaging together with the retailers.