Sicilian citrus has ups and downs

Last season, Sicilian citrus suffered greatly from the heat and drought. Francesca Di Geronimo is a manager at a well-known Sicilian cultivation and marketing company. She explains how the dynamics which have determined the trend in this leading Italian fruit and vegetable sector should be interpreted.

Francesca Di Geronimo

"The 2017/2018 citrus season is at an end. Last season a large portion of the citrus was destroyed by frost. After this, we are in positive again. This season's yield is considerably larger. We are talking about cultivation in Ragusa, in south-eastern Sicily. We are now viewing the foreign market with enthusiasm. There is, however, a lot of competition throughout the whole Mediterranean region", explains Di Geronimo.

The added value of the organic and 'Sicilian' labels
Consumers' interest in the organic sector is growing enormously. The SINAB (Italian National Information System for Organic Agriculture) showed an increase of 20%. Sicilian products are well-liked overseas, and this certification adds value. It makes it possible for this product to break into new markets and position itself in a preferential market segment. In general, the supply of oranges is very high, and the prices are very low. Many farmers are forced to sell their wares at low prices. This disrupts the market even more. The best strategy is always to have good new products, and excellent pre and post sales and service.

Competition from the Mediterranean region and beyond
"The competition stimulates us to improve and implement new market strategies. However, when it comes to price, we cannot compete. This is because of the considerable costs we carry compared to countries in North Africa, Spain, Greece, and Israel. We, however, specialise in the organic sector. We are already seen as quality product suppliers. We can, therefore, distinguish ourselves and pique the interest of wholesalers", says Di Geronimo.

"On the other hand, South Africa has a great advantage. It is an important citrus reference and has a monopoly on the market in some months of the year. During these times there are no products from the Northern Hemisphere. The demand for citrus is also high then and are they are sold at very high prices. In light of this, we have invested greatly in the increased cultivation of late-season oranges. This can lengthen the season. We think that oranges are well-liked all over the world. Although the consumption of the fruit declines in the summer, we see an increase in its use for juices and other drinks", Francesca explains.

Cold treatment & phytosanitary protocols essential for the privilege of foreign trade
"We have recently set up special protocols for exporting to the US. These are needed to prevent the spread of disease and the transport of parasites and pathogens. The subject is quite delicate. The country needs to be protected, but it is also seen as a form of unjustified protectionism. Agreements between countries must be balanced between the various requirements. The procedures are also not clear. I think our phytosanitary inspectors must be well trained to help companies such as ours. Particularly if we want to export to countries outside of the EU", says Di Geronimo.


And Asia?
"Asia is showing an increasing interest in Italian products. Italy is regarded as a country with good food. Italian cuisine is one of the most famous forms of cooking worldwide. This is thanks to our authentic, good quality products. The Sicilian region is merited with cultivating national oranges", she says.

"We know that the Alibaba group in China works hard at importing Sicilian blood oranges. Sicily must focus on quality or special products such as blood oranges. I think we can distinguish ourselves from other countries. This is thanks to our specific microclimate and high temperatures range. To this end, we are concentrating on new, very resistant varieties like the Tarocco and the F6P12 rootstock. Using correct market strategies, we must distinguish ourselves with very early or late varieties such as the Navel Fukumoto", says Francesca.

E-commerce to tap into new markets
E-commerce plays an important role in the Asian market context. It is also becoming more important in the local economy. Consider the development of online platforms, such as Alibaba. It is possible to buy everything with the click of a mouse. E-commerce increases competition and shortens distances. This enables relevant market strategies to be developed. Here, quality and service are also essential to remain permanently on the market.

How healthy are the orchards?
"Plant diseases are having a negative effect on plantations as they are detrimental to production. A sick citrus orchard gives fewer, lower-quality fruits. Investments must, therefore, be made to repair the trees and to be able to vaccinate again. The average consumer is not aware of plant diseases. They just see the lower quality of the fruit when they find it on the market. Growers carry all the risks and costs. One of the worst plant diseases to hit the Sicilian citrus tree orchards in recent years is the Tristeza virus. The only solution is to eradicate the virus and plant anew", says Francesca.


Italian citrus cultivation from an overseas perspective
Francesca requested an extract from the United States of America's Department of Agricultural. This was to get a good idea of how Italian citrus is viewed abroad.

The American administrative body declares: "Italy is, after Spain, the second largest orange producer in Europe. Sicily and Calabria are the most important orange cultivation areas. They, respectively, represent 59 and 22% of the total production. Tarocco, Moro, Sanguinello, Naveline, and Valencia are the most important varieties of Italian-grown oranges. The Ippolito and Meli varieties are also becoming increasingly popular. The 2017/2018 Italian citrus season should be exceptional from a quality perspective. This, despite the 6% drop in production due to the drought. There was rain at the end of September in the most important regions and favourable weather conditions in November. These contributed to the mitigation of the drought's consequences. The ideal citrus size is small and medium."

This analysis does not take into account the heavy rain experienced in June (the report is dated 13 June 2018).

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