A few years ago, the market for outdoor strawberries didn’t exactly look rosy. Competition from substrate production increased and more and more growers chose a different production method. Jurgen de Braekeleer, product manager of the REO Veiling, characterises the situation back then as “as good as dead.” The Fine Fleur quality label turned out to be the life saver for outdoor strawberries and the often smaller growers of this product in the Roesalere region in Belgium. For some years now, outdoor strawberries “have once again been a product much in demand.”
“Because of the cold spring, we started two weeks later with outdoor strawberries this year,” Jurgen says. On 20 April, the first Fine Fleur outdoor strawberries were sold at the REO Veiling. The outdoor strawberry season is short. In six to eight weeks between April and June, about 500,000 punnets are marketed, good for a volume between 150 and 250 tonnes. The weather circumstances caused a fickle supply pattern. After the delayed start, some weeks of sunny weather followed, so that large volumes entered the market all at once.
Since last year, the soft fruit under the Fine Fleur label has been sold in punnets with two handles. “France, as REO Veiling’s second domestic market, is a good buyer of our soft fruit,” Jurgen says. Last year, French demand was so large, REO Veiling had difficulty keeping enough volume available for the Belgian market. “The French market is very important to us.” Compared to that, the German market is a commercial battleground, where Belgian soft fruit has to compete with supply from Poland and the Czech Republic.
Traditionally grown products from domestic soil
“About three years ago we chose to market a limited supply of outdoor strawberries under the Fine Fleur quality label. The Fine Fleur assortment consists of seasonal products that are grown traditionally, by a limited number of growers closely involved with quality and presentation of the product,” Jurgen continues. Besides outdoor strawberries, products such as berries, chicory, curled endive, butterhead lettuce, outdoor tomatoes and young leek are also marketed under Fine Fleur. For local growers in the Roeselare region, the brand opened doors to new market opportunities. By combining the best products of these growers, a product with plenty of volume and added value was created. “We’ve noticed the Fine Fleur label is picked up by retail and specialist shops more and more,” Jurgen says.
Although the strawberry plants have their roots in western Flemish soil, the plants are covered. The outdoor strawberries are grown in a radius of 20 kilometres around the auction. Additionally, two growers in Poperinge, where the auction has a well-equipped supply platform, also offer Fine Fleur soft fruit. “All production in the region is protected by greenhouses or tunnels. In other Belgian regions, they still grow using rain covers, but we’ve consciously decided, with the growers, not to do things that way here, so that we can continue to guarantee an optimum quality.”
Short season results in demand
“After three years, we can now draw up the balance sheet. By offering only the best quality under the Fine Fleur label, we’ve managed to gain loyal buyers who are willing to pay more for this perfect outdoor strawberry,” Jurgen explains. Because of strict requirements regarding quality and sizing, 30 to 40 per cent of the harvest of REO Veiling’s growers is suitable for Fine Fleur on average. The added value pays for itself and can make a difference from 50 cent up to one euro more per kilogram compared to the years before the strawberries were marketed under the quality label.
“We want to give these products their own identity, which is why we’re very dedicated to a personalised packaging, so that real, authentic Fine Fleur growers introduce each product,” Jurgen says. Besides the clearly recognisable packaging and quality, the short season also benefits the growers. “We only market Fine Fleur outdoor strawberries when they’re at their best, and we’ve decidedly chosen not to expand the season to be on the market year-round. This isn’t just the case for outdoor strawberries, but also for raspberries, for instance. This means we sometimes have to disappoint customers when the product is no longer available, but we’re convinced this is better for the brand and our quality policy in the long term.”
“Demand for a product with specific product characteristics is increasing both from trade and from growers. We’ve seen a trend that products shouldn’t just be good, they should be the best quality.” This can also be seen in the strict product requirements Fine Fleur growers impose on themselves. Only the best products can be marketed as Fine Fleur, and no justified complaints should be made about the products. Within outdoor vegetables, only five to ten per cent of total volume is suitable to be marketed under the quality label. “When there’s been just one complaint, the grower can temporarily no longer supply under the brand, when there are multiple complaints, the product can be excluded from the brand,” Jurgen explains the consequences of complaints.
Selection of varieties under Fine Fleur
The variety is also chosen. For outdoor strawberries, only Elsanta, Clery and Magnum have a chance of being offered as Fine Fleur in shops. “When trade gives us signs that a variety isn’t good enough, this variety is excluded from being sold as a Fine Fleur outdoor strawberry,” Jurgen says. For other products, the requirements are just as strict. For Fine Fleur, only Kwanza and Tulameen are still suitable. “We’ve removed the other varieties from the Fine Fleur assortment, because they became too dark too quickly, for instance, or because their shelf life is less long. We’re currently still considering other varieties, such as Tulameen. Tulameen might be a well-known standard variety, but with the growers, we’ve noticed it doesn’t always meet the strict Fine Fleur requirements.”
“In the past season, I’ve heard an alternative for Kwanza is looked for, because the variety doesn’t completely meet requirements,” Jurgen explains. “This indicates the production is still in its infancy.” It would therefore not surprise him if the raspberry production looks completely different in five years. “I think we’ll be growing completely different varieties, use other production methods, and have a completely different production season than now.” The current Fine Fleur raspberry season lasts from May to October. “It wouldn’t surprise me if we were to have an eight or nine-month season in five years, just like we can now offer strawberries year-round at REO Veiling. Whether this will still be under the Fine Fleur brand remains to be seen, because the starting points of absolutely the best quality, authenticity and dedicated growers won’t be disregarded.”
Jurgen de Braekeleer