Mirosław Maliszewski, CEO of the Polish Apple Association, discusses the difficulties faced by the country’s fresh produce industry and how it is not only looking to survive but thrive in the future.

Miroslaw Maliszewski MUST CREDIT Adrian Grycuk

Miroslaw Maliszewski

Image: Adrian Grycuk

How is the Polish fresh produce industry holding up against the many challenges we continue to see at the start of 2023?

Mirosław Maliszewski: The Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the first stage of which took place in 2014, resulted in exports of Polish fruit and vegetables stopping completely to our largest market, which was Russia and Belarus. There were also problems with shipments to Egypt, which recently bought from us almost 150,000 tonnes of apples a year. Sales to European Union countries, which are developing strongly, look rather uninterrupted.

Our key export product is, of course, apples, which we are a leading producer in. Sales of some vegetables, especially those produced in the ground, are also growing, such as onions, cabbage and carrots. During the season we export a lot of other fruit, especially blueberries, raspberries and vegetables, mainly cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers grown under cover. We are also a leading player in the mushroom market, selling to almost all of Europe and many more distant countries.

A category that we are strongly developing is organic fruit and vegetables, both fresh and processed. We are following the clear consumer trend in this segment.

How has the industry adapted to the loss of those key markets?

MM: We realise that replacing lost eastern markets is a task covering many years. It cannot be done in one or even several seasons. Recipients in new markets have different shopping preferences, they are used to different varieties, packaging and quality standards to the ones that Russians and Belarusians have had over the years. There is therefore a need to change the production profile. This takes a lot of time and even more money.

The industry is looking for alternative methods to manage the surplus that remains on the market as a result of the embargo, which is why we are actively entering even niche categories.

What about the rise in costs being experienced across the business?

MM: Production costs is the second factor negatively affecting the financial results of horticultural farms. The prices of fertilisers, electricity, fuel and labour have increased the most, and in the case of greenhouse production, the prices of coal, oil and gas. Some of them are the result of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, some funded by our authorities. For example, the price of fertilisers has increased by up to five times, while the price of gas has not gone up that much. The electricity we use in large amounts, especially for irrigation and cold storage, has more than doubled. The price of diesel has increased several dozen per cent and is the basis for work on every farm.

There are too few employees and they are too expensive. Men from Ukraine cannot enter, and citizens of other countries are not allowed to work by our authorities. As a result, in the last season we had thousands of tonnes of unharvested fruit and vegetables, and above all, an increase in rates by several dozen per cent year on year. Without opening our labour market to citizens of, for example, Uzbekistan, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, we will not manage in the coming years.

Does what you are experiencing in 2023 compare to anything you have seen in the past?

MM: The current situation is probably the worst in the entire history of Polish fruit and vegetable growing. For several decades, the industry has been developing, mainly thanks to several favourable phenomena, the most important of which was the location right next to the huge market of Russia, and good soil and climatic conditions.

Not without significance was also the knowledge, experience and entrepreneurship of people who dealt with production. This gave us the position of the largest producer of apples and several other fruit species in Europe, and the largest fruit exporter in the world. We also had a very strong position in vegetables. So we made great use of the circumstances in which we lived and produced. In no other country has fruit-growing developed as well as in Poland. Unfortunately, this ended with the ban on trade with Russia and Belarus.

To read the full interview see the April issue of Eurofruit, which is also the magazine’s 50th anniversary edition