South Africa apples and pears

With inconsistent weather leading to a 7.3 per cent decline in top-fruit volumes over the last year, it has been a volatile market for UK growers, with many retailers having lowered specifications to utilise more of the crop.

It hasn’t been cheap for consumers either as prices of top fruit saw inflation increase well over 17 per cent, and Adrian Barlow, CEO of English Apples & Pears, says prices rose due to a lack of promotional activity last year.

“English apples went up from £1.69 a kilo to £1.89, and a lot of that increase is actually the result of a lack of promotional activity without any two-for-ones or BOGOFs,” explains Barlow.

He says Britain could see record crops of Braeburn and Gala this year, while admitting volumes of conference pears are set to fall.

Meanwhile, Mark Culley, managing director of OrchardWorld, has called for “more strategic marketing” in 2013 and says he would like to see top fruit pushed as a category in the same way as soft fruit, which has seen its value and volume increase significantly this season.

He explains: “There needs to be sustained promotional activity in this sector and much more strategic adverts as it is imperative that we increase consumption. Whether that’s at breakfast time or not, we must find a way as we have lost three to four weeks with this season’s crop being late and that is promotional time we won’t get back.”

Currently only 11.1 per cent of UK apples and pears are eaten at breakfast despite over 20 per cent of all UK fruit being consumed as part of the first meal of the day.

Despite the lateness of this year’s crop, Culley insists that apple volumes will be up well over 23 per cent this season – largely driven by a 60 per cent increase in Braeburn – and will be more in line with the crop of 2011.

His views are echoed by James Simpson, MD of top-fruit supplier Adrian Scripps. “Volumes will definitely be higher than last season and similar to the 2011 crop. However, we expect to be harvesting about two weeks later than last season, so will not see UK Gala harvests in any real volume until the last week of October or first week of November.” Scripps adds he would like to see all of the major supermarkets selling more UK top fruit, namechecking Sainsbury’s for
particular praise.

The big-four supermarket sold the most English apples and pears of any UK retailer last season, finishing the season in the top spot for the fifth year running, having sold over 31,000 tonnes of UK-grown top fruit.

According to Culley, the other supermarkets must start catching up. “While it has been wonderful for Sainsbury’s to lead the way over the last five years, the other supermarkets need to start selling more English fruit as well. It isn’t enough to just extend seasons, we must look to produce a wider range of crops.”

Sainsbury’s, which currently offers 63 different domestic top-fruit varieties, will continue to add more, according to apple buyer Lee Turner. “With such a variety of crops maturing this season, we’re hoping we’ll have even more of our Best of British bags for customers to enjoy while introducing people to more unusual varieties such as Arkcharm, Chivers Delight, Ribston Pippin and William Crump,” says Turner.

Varietal development could be key for growers in increasing consumption and Culley says he wouldn’t be surprised if technology allows growers to produce significant volumes of UK-grown Granny Smith and Pink Lady apples over the coming years.

“A few years ago, if you’d have told me we would grow Braeburn in the UK I wouldn’t have believed you, so anything is possible.”

That seems to be a reality at Adrian Scripps, with the producer using cloning techniques to produce more UK versions of popular international varieties. “We have been carrying out extensive trials on our farms of varieties or clones of apples and pears that may come to the market in future,” Simpson says.

Belgians look for fresh growth

New top-fruit varieties are coming to the fore in Belgium this season as growers aim to produce varieties that cater for specific consumer tastes.

Steven Maxwell reports

Conference pears dominate pear production in Belgium accounting for, according to one grower, around 90 per cent of the total production area in the country. In apples it is much the same story, with two varieties – Jonagold and Jonagored – accounting for more than 50 per cent of Belgium’s total annual apple volumes.

But all this could be set to change in the relatively near future. In response to demand from not just key European markets, like the UK, but also increasingly from emerging markets in North Africa, eastern Europe and the Far East, Belgium’s growers are now investing in certain varieties to meet the demands of consumers in specific markets. Belgian fruit auction house Belgische Fruitveiling (BFV) exports 85 per cent of its annual apple and pear volumes and 40 per cent of that total is sold outside the European Union to markets including Scandinavia, Russia, Belarus, the Middle East, North Africa and the
Far East.

Of course, BFV’s Marc Evrard is keen to emphasise that the UK market remains important to the company, especially when it comes to the firm’s export expansion strategy. “The UK market is of growing importance because we want to diversify – we don’t want to put all the eggs in the one basket and we don’t want to grow too dependent on one, bigger market, like Russia for instance,” he says.

“That’s why we also appreciate consumers who go for quality and we really appreciate the support we have been receiving throughout the years for some of our main varieties, like Conference pears which have become the standard variety in the UK market.”

However, Evrard says BFV will also become increasingly focused on marketing its newer Jolly Red apple and Sweet Sensation pear varieties, which he says have been developed for specific regions with specific consumer tastes.

This, he says, is in line with a trend that has emerged over recent years, with growing regions such as New Zealand developing varieties for specific tastes, including Jazz and Pink Lady apples principally for the European market and Envy mainly for the Far Eastern market. “Customers want variety in their diet,” says Evrard. “Consumption per capita is going down so perhaps that’s why the sector keeps looking to innovations to make sure consumers are kept interested.”

In BFV’s own case, Evrard adds that the company will also be focused this season on marketing its Belgica apples and Truval Conference pears in the UK.

Harvesting, however, is likely to begin slightly later this season, with Evrard predicting between 15-21 September for pears compared with 7 September last season, with apples starting three weeks later or two weeks in the case of early variety Belgica.

In total, he predicts a crop of 250,000 tonnes, with Conference dominating pear production, followed by Comice and new, red variety Sweet Sensation.

Jonagold and Jonagored are the firm’s main apple varieties, followed by Golden Delicious, Granny Smith and Belgica. A new sweet variety, Jolly Red, has also been developed for export to North Africa, the Middle East and the Far East.

As with BFV, Bel’Export expects picking to begin an average of three weeks later than 2012, with the company’s Tony Derwael explaining that the firm is working “extremely hard” to get Corina pears to market two to three weeks before its standard Conference volumes arrive.

“Due to the later flowering time between 1-7 May, the growing season is shorter, so it will be difficult to achieve the correct sizes,” he says. “We had to thin the Conference out more than normal because with fewer pieces on the tree it is easier to achieve bigger sizes.”

However, Derwael says favourable weather conditions have helped towards achieving this, with sunny weather and regular rainfall enabling the pear crop to grow by an average of 4-5mm per week while sugar levels are also expected to be higher than normal at between 13-14 brix.

“So like with wine, we’ll have a good ‘fruit year’,” says Derwael. “The external quality looks promising, as long as we don’t get hail damage, although the risk still remains!”

In apples, Derwael is anticipating smaller than average volumes, but with good sizing in Jonagold and Boskoop cooking apples, and no gap between the end of pear harvesting and the start of apple picking. However, he remains cautious. “In the rest of the EU, they expect a seven per cent increase in apples and pears, so there will be no problems selling the fruit,” Derwael says. “The only enemy will be over-optimism. As most of the growers have a short memory, they only think about what happened last season when we had extremely high prices because of a shortage. “However, due to the later start to the season, we will miss three weeks of selling, which will decrease the market with another seven per cent.”

In common with many other Belgian top-fruit companies, fruit marketer Herwi counts Russia as its principal export market for apples and pears – accounting for around 50 per cent of total volumes – followed by the UK and Germany. However, the firm’s Koen de Roy says the UK, which accounts for 20 per cent of Herwi’s top-fruit exports, remains an important market.

Between the second week of September and summer the following year, Herwi markets Jonagold, Jonagored and Braeburn apples, as well as substantial volumes of Conference pears, drawing its average of 20,000 tonnes for export from 80ha of Conference and 64ha
of apples.

De Roy says it is hard to understate the importance of Conference in Belgium, which he estimates accounts for around 90 per cent of total pear production, while he says Jonagold and Jonagored cover more than 50 per cent of the country’s entire apple output.

However, he believes the latter statistic will soon change. “In the near future, we will see more and more Braeburn,” De Roy says. “There is more demand for Braeburn and growers are considering replacing old Jonagold and Jonagored trees with Braeburn.”

But although the UK is undoubtedly an important market for Belgian top-fruit exporters, industry association VLAM says the focus of its ongoing ‘Taste of Europe’ marketing campaign, which is co-financed by the EU, will be North America, Russia, Japan, China and the Middle East. A separate campaign has also been developed for Conference pears, with the focus in this case on increasing sales in Russia and Germany. —