Over recent years, faced with what many of its producers would describe as unfair competition from Morocco, Canary Islands exports of tomatoes and cucumbers have gradually decreased, in the case of tomatoes dropping from 159,955 tonnes in 2007 to 94,762t in 2011.

According to data from Spanish fresh produce association Fepex, a similar decline in export sales has also become apparent in cucumbers, with shipments totalling 18,646t in 2011 from 20,469t in 2007.
A reduction in subsidies paid by the Spanish government through the EU’s Posei programme has also been cited as a crucial reason behind the decline, with Canaries tomato association Fedex-Aceto recently accusing the Spanish authorities of not passing on allocated funds. However, in spite of the difficulties, José Hernandez from importer Fortuna Frutos, which specialises in Canaries tomatoes and cucumbers, expects to receive the first volumes of tomatoes from the islands in the second week of October, with shipments likely to continue until the following June.

Likewise, cucumber imports are expected to begin from the Canaries in the first week of November and should run through until around the first week of April. As far as quality goes, Hernandez says that although it is still relatively early in the campaign all the indications appear positive for the season ahead. “We started planting tomatoes in the last week of July and the crops look very healthy and are coming along very well,” he says. “The weather in the Canary Islands, although it’s the summer time, have seen temperatures during the day not exceeding 30 degrees. “Again, with cucumbers so far things are looking good although it’s early days.”

Although Fortuna principally supplies Canaries tomatoes and cucumbers to supermarkets, Hernandez says a high percentage of volumes coming into the UK also go to the foodservice sector, supplying in some cases 12 months a year.

As a group, Fortuna supplies a number of different European markets, but the importance of the UK is such that much of its programme is dedicated to producing fruit specifically for British consumers. “In the UK, we have a high demand for medium-sized fruit, so in order to meet the demand we do grow specific varieties,” says Hernandez. “The main varieties we use from the Canaries are Mariana and Dorothy in order to achieve that high percentage of medium-sized tomatoes.”

Like Fortuna, Cortes Ltd is both a grower and an importer, although in the latter case tomatoes between November and May every season are explicitly the focus of the business. The third generation of a family business started by his grandfather as an importer, Hernan Cortes says Cortes is now very much production-based, focusing on producing speciality tomatoes for which it already has a contract with “one of the big UK multiples”.

“We’ve been looking at increasing the quality of our production there with the technical knowledge that we’ve acquired from producing in mainland Spain and we’re trying to differentiate ourselves a little bit with the speciality lines,” he says. “On the back of that, we’ve got some good orders and some good interest.”

As a producer, Cortes believes the Canaries are stable in terms of production, despite strong competition from Morocco and mainland Spain. “The Canaries are still important players in tomatoes even though there has been a reduction in production,” he says. “Canaries have the advantage of nice weather in the early part of the year compared with mainland Spain, but then it’s not as competitive when it comes to the day to day. Everything is a little bit more expensive, especially since subsidies have been slightly reduced.”

Despite this, Cortes says the Canaries have retained important market shares in the UK and Scandinavia. “The islands at the moment are stable in terms of hectares, but you get the impression that they need a good season,” he says. “The summer’s been very poor and if the winter’s the same, there will be a few more casualties.”

In common with Cortes, fellow British importer MBJSC has recently moved into production after developing close financial links with two growers in Tenerife, including large independent grower Tenal, which exports almost exclusively to the UK. Company managing director Morna Blair-Cornwell explains that MBJSC has begun diversifying beyond tomatoes and is now also importing papayas, melons and exotic fruits from the islands. “With Canaries tomatoes, there’s not really any growth with round varieties, but there is growth with other products like melons and papayas,” she says. However, although she says sales of round tomatoes appear to be falling and tomato export volumes from the Canaries have been decreasing year on year, she believes there is still room for growth with speciality varieties.

“Overall tomato export volumes from the Canaries are falling, but ours won’t because we have new varieties like Santa West plum tomatoes and possibly we will have a little more production,” she says. “The growth is in specialist tomatoes and as a result sales of traditional round tomatoes appear to be falling.”

Despite this, Blair-Cornwell is upbeat about the prospects for the new Canaries tomato season, stressing the weather has been kinder to crops. —