Over the decades, La Pernice started cultivating table grapes, cherries and apricots and, in 2007, it started acquiring other businesses. Its own produce now represents 15% of the total volumes commercialised. In order to cover the whole 12 months, it has also introduced mini-watermelons and cabbage.
In 2017, La Pernice handled 2500 tons of cherries and apricots, 2000 tons of mini-watermelons and two and a half million cabbage heads. 15,000 tons of table grapes are expected for 2018.
The company works mainly with foreign retailers, so much so that 80% of the volumes are exported (Germany, Switzerland, France and Austria).
Almost all of the produce is sold under La Pernice's own brand.
The cherry campaign has just started and the Bigarreaux variety is currently being harvested, followed by the Georgia and Ferovia varieties. The apricot season has started with the Ninfa variety, cultivated in greenhouses. Covers prevented damage to the early produce, as up to 70% of the produce was damaged elsewhere. Company managers also referred to the fact that diversified suppliers helped compensate losses. No problems are currently reported for table grapes.
How varieties changed over the years
Just like other companies that commercialise fresh produce, La Pernice has seen demand change over the years, meaning producers had to adapt. Seedless grapes have become very popular over the past six-seven years. Currently, 50% of La Pernice's table grape selection is made up of seedless grapes and the trend is set to continue, so much so that La Pernice supports the main Italian consortia focusing on the development of seedless table grape varieties.
As for apricots, red ones are becoming increasingly popular, however it makes things more complicated for producers as the colour does not necessarily coincide with the ripeness level. Nonetheless, these varieties lose their acidity while in storage.
When it comes to cherries, improvements should be carried out not so much on varieties, but rather on cultivation techniques and covers. Dwarfing rootstocks would be useful and more public incentives to cover orchards with nets are needed.
Talking about watermelons, the fact that families now have fewer members inevitably favoured the mini-watermelon segment.
All products harvested are gathered in a single facility with a processing room covering 10,000 sq m equipped with specialised processing lines and cold storage units.
At peak times, the company employs 700 people. Cherries have their own processing room with optical grading as well as multiple packaging options.
The company holds the main quality certifications, including the organic one and is currently acquiring the SA 8000 certification.
High quality at a low cost is a myth
Managers at La Pernice are convinced that, regardless of competition with foreign countries, Italian produce can still stand out. "Those who buy your produce must be convinced they have found something different, but the price must be different as well. It's useless buying a kg of cheap fruit if you won't eat it because you don't like it. It's better to spend a little more and buy something less but eat it because you like it. No one knows the work it takes to grow and commercialise fruit: high quality at a low cost is a myth."
As regards the comparison between the domestic and foreign market, La Pernice reports demand is livelier abroad, where they import more. However, the domestic market has changed a lot over the past few years, as traditional wholesale markets have been replaced by retail.
Working with retailers
"You can't survive if you don't work with retailers, it's the only way to work with continuity and big volumes. We have been working with retailers for the past 25 years and, although nobody ever praises you, you can see that they trust you as a supplier when they keep placing orders. Foreign chains are starting to work with on-site quality managers that visit processing plants and even fields. Quality is important on the domestic market as well. For example, we guarantee a minimum Brix level and full traceability."
Above and below: internal and external defects shown for cherries during the sorting and grading phase
"However, we have also noticed that, unlike other countries, Italy lacks a policy to safeguard local productions. France or Switzerland, for example, stop purchasing foreign produce when their domestic campaigns start, regardless of quality. The Italian market seems instead more receptive of productions from other countries, even when domestic campaigns are in full swing."
Running a fresh produce business is not for everyone. "We try to keep up with the times year after year and therefore reinvest everything in our company. The risk is for return times to be very long and not coincide with the evolution of demand. More support from institutions would be useful."
According to the entrepreneur, the biggest challenge remains that of promoting fresh produce more. "We tend to spend a lot on useless stuff, but then complain that fruit and vegetables are too expensive while there is no comparison between their real value - which is often too low - and market prices."