Stonefruit generic

Plum sales have remained flat, while peaches and nectarines have been the main drivers of growth in the marketplace and cherries saw their volumes decline, according to Kantar Worldpanel.

Jo Mumford, category manager at Chingford Fruit, explains: “Stonefruit has experienced value decline driven by plums and to a lesser extent cherries. Nectarines and peaches are the only areas displaying marginal growth, with these types seeing most range enhancement and variety development within the category.”

Mumford blames the cold, wet spring for the poor showing and believes that UK consumers have felt let down by fruit quality early in the season. The lack of availability, which pushed prices higher, also had a detrimental effect.

She says: “Key measure data also suggests European stonefruit has been affected by UK shoppers buying less frequently. There has been a reduction in the overall customer base, with those that continue to purchase buying less volume in an effort to reduce overall spend as a result of unit price increase, and a disappointing eating experience due to poor weather conditions at the start of the season.”

The delays meant retail promotions did not kick in until later in the season than usual. Jon Clark of Total Cherry, part of the Total Worldfresh group of companies, says: “We had to wait longer for the volume to begin. This meant higher prices for a good part of the early stages of the season, which held back promotional activity for many retailers across the category. This lack of early momentum that was often built up – and helped by half-price promotional messages which have all but disappeared from the shelves this year – have made it a tough season to drive quantity.”

However, Clark stresses eating quality has been very good: “When the fruit did come we have been blessed with some excellent-eating fruit from across Europe. The plum season, having had a slow start in the main southern Europe production areas, is also going to have what looks to be a limited supply for the later season too. The only slight peak in plum volumes comes from northern Europe in September.”

Spanish cherries had a late entry to the campaign and several growing regions were rain affected too – most notably volumes of Picota were about half a normal crop. Turkey started early with good quality and although the UK cherry crop was not as large as forecast, fruit size and taste were very good and volumes were significantly up on last season.

Apricots, peaches and nectarines from Spain are all putting in a strong late showing in September, with apricots particularly suffering frost which almost cancelled the first three weeks of their normal season. “A recovery late on with the main varieties saw a good end and fruit well into September,” explains Clark.

This late start has also changed the picture in terms of competing with other fresh produce lines. Mumford says: “Key competition during the season still originates from other summer fruit categories, namely soft fruit and grapes. To compete with these… range development and variety innovation has emerged this season. This year has seen more variation in quality than usual and this is where new ranges such as the premium [nectarine] Regal’in has helped stabilise variability, as it represents consistently high quality and flavour throughout the year.”

Another issue is that the main part of the stonefruit offer is centred around the £1-a-pack promotion. “This was difficult to deliver in the early part of the season,” says Clark. “At that time there was good availability and prices on soft fruit, therefore that picked up a lot of sale in the stores. The balance was restored to some degree later into the summer months.”

Looking ahead into the autumn Total Cherry points to a dearth of cherries on the marketplace until mid-October and a limited supply of later European plums that will push values higher. It should make for an interesting time.


These are good times for the South African stonefruit industry, but can the growth be sustained in the medium term, asks Fred Meintjes

There are a lot of smiling faces in the South African stonefruit sector. A good 2012-13 export season is likely to be followed by another good crop after helpful winter rains andcold weather.

The South African stonefruit sector has had an excellent export season, with a record volume of more than 17 million cartons having been exported. This figure was mostly driven by an excellent plum crop, indicating that South Africa is possibly heading to the plum export levels last seen in the second part of the 1990s. During the past four years South African stonefruit exports have risen by 35 per cent, with a 10 per cent rise during the past season. Since 2009-2010 plum exports have increased by nearly 44 per cent and during the past season plums were again the star performers. In 2013 plum exports alone increased by 19 per cent, from 9.5m cartons in 2011-2012 to 11.3m this year.

It seems that the rapid growth which was predicted during the middle years of the past decade has arrived in grand style. The question now is whether this growth will be sustained in the years ahead. The answer is not simple. In the short term maybe, but in the medium to long term possibly not. Stonefruit industry expert Niel Hugo, who recently swapped his position as stonefruit co-ordinator at Capespan for a new career as marketing manager for packaging supplier Mpact, seems to agree with this view. “I think perhaps we have reached the peak in plantings, but then I am told that there are some growers who are seeing great opportunities to expand.”

Statistics provided by Hortgro indicate that plantings of apricot orchards have declined during the past two years, with the total area by 2012 being some 19 per cent lower than in 2007. Nearly 50 per cent of the orchards are older than 15 years, suggesting that new plantings will be urgently needed to sustain growth in future.

That is why Ashton farmer Stefan Bruwer is seeing great opportunities in the apricot sector. It is true that if you want to know what is happening in the future, speak to the growers. Bruwer says that in deciding what to plant one is often more wrong than right. “On the other hand, in the grower
community nobody will admit when they make mistakes. The recipe is to understand what is good for your region and apricots do well here.”

Bruwer explains the apricot industry is very much process orientated, a statement supported by Hortgro’s statistics indicating that fresh exports only represent eight per cent of the total crop. Yet the returns are excellent in the fresh sector. Apricot growers are therefore in a fortunate position that they have a strong fresh, drying and processing sector.

In the case of nectarines the total area planted by 2012 showed a decline for the first time since 2007. However, 82 per cent of nectarine orchards are less than 15 years old, with 40 per cent less than five years old. This would suggest that perhaps the industry has not seen the best of the present orchards yet. Peaches are expected to show further growth, especially as new varieties for the fresh market become available, but the peach industry in South Africa is also very much processed and local market dominated.

Plum hectares sustained modest growth in 2012 and again the key indicator is that 70 per cent of the orchards are less than 15 years old. The plum industry is therefore also well placed to sustain some growth in the medium term. The key indicator is that with such a high percentage of orchards under 15 years old in the nectarine and plum
sectors, the industry is in a good position to sustain growth in the short term. It will be important to see what this year’s plantings reveal. A further slow down will indicate a tapering off of growth in a few years’ time. Macro-economic conditions will play a role and with exchanges rates as favourable as they are at present, you can be sure that every exportable carton will be exported in the coming season.

The stonefruit sector did not enjoy the benefit of the recent slide in the South African currency, which sent earnings soaring in the apple, pear and citrus industries. At this stage the financial forecasts do not suggest that the South African rand will recover soon and stonefruit exporters will be anticipating a good season.

One of the most important dynamics that will affect growth in the short to medium term is whether more recent labour issues in South Africa will start affecting confidence among growers to invest in new orchards. If the industry can overcome increased production costs, they have at their disposal some of the best new varieties to further boost their basket.

Among plums, African Delight is set to become one of the most important contributors. It is a full, red plum that has found favour in the market and has been planted extensively by growers. Jacques du Preez, product manager for stonefruit at Hortgro, previously told FPJ that never before in the history of the South African stonefruit business has one variety been planted so quickly and been brought into production in such volume as African Delight. One of the reasons for this is that African Delight is what is called a ‘free’ variety, therefore available to all growers as long as they are registered by the South African plant breeding organisation, Culdevco. Leon von Mollendorff, general manager of Culdevco, says while African Delight will continue to be popular with growers, the company launched a range of cultivars during the past few years which are expected to do well.

Among them is Ruby Crunch, a full red-flesh plum that ripens toward the end of January and is expected to be popular among UK consumers. “We know that consumers are looking for products with increased health-giving qualities and full, red-fleshed plums fall into this category,” he says.

Von Mollendorff says other full red-coloured plums that are expected to do well are Ruby Star, which is similar to African Delight, African Rose, which will in time replace Pioneer, and Ruby Sun.

South Africa’s apricot export season is also expected to be extended considerably by a new range of late-ripening cultivars which Stargrow Cultivar Development is now making available to South African growers. According to a Stargrow newsletter, the new range of Carmingo apricots will cover the entire South African production season of October, November and December, but most importantly, will also deliver fruit for export in January and February. Although it will be some time before these varieties are exported in volume from South Africa, this may well for the first time enable South African growers to supply their customers for more than six months, enabling them to develop consistent and long-term marketing programmes.

“Our feedback from European supermarkets who have already received Carmingos from Spain is very positive,” says Stargrow’s Waldo Maree. “We see a big future for them in South Africa’s late stonefruit regions and expect them to make a major contribution to the extension of the season and the profitability of the apricot industry.”

All these factors combined point to an exciting new season for stonefruit from South Africa, with the first fruit reaching the export market towards the end of October. —