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Marc Evrard (BFV) on the search for alternatives for the Russian market:

“Strict production conditions mean exporting larger volumes of pears to China”

In the years before the boycott, Russia bought as much as 50 per cent of the Belgian Conference pears at certain times during the season. “A volume of roughly 100 million kilograms can’t just be regained. That’s why we’re now working hard to reconquer our share on both current and new markets, although it might be that ten markets that are good for ten million kilograms, or twenty markets good for five million kilograms. Fortunately, we’ve seen pear export gradually growing both close to home and far away,” says commercial manager Marc Evrard of the Belgische Fruit Veiling (BFV).

Within pear export to destinations outside the EU, Conference is the absolute showpiece. Additionally, BFV also markets Sweet Sensation, Doyenné du Comice and Triomphe de Vienne pears within Europe. “The advantage of Belgian, but also Dutch, growers is that we’re in a region in which we grow Conference very productively. Besides, the pear has a number of unique characteristics such as a long shelf life, and it’s one of the tastiest pears in the world. Price-wise it’s a good choice as well, due to its high productivity. That’s an advantage compared to South American and Southern European countries, where they’re switching to other productions due to costs, or they stop producing the pear at all, which happens mostly in Argentina.”

Increasing export of Conference pears to Germany
“It’s positive that both Belgium and the Netherlands are experiencing a rising line regarding the export of Conference pears to Germany. At the same time, we’re seeing that while retailers were previously guided more in their purchasing behaviour by the start and finish of the season in the Southern Hemisphere, they now prefer continuing with Conference longer,” the commercial manager continues. He isn’t dissatisfied by the current pear exports. “Within Europe, sales are going quite well and pricing is fairly stable. In Belgium, we have small sizes available in Conference, but that’s compensated nicely by the lack of small sizes in the Netherlands.”

“We’ve also seen our export outside the EU increasing. Belarus has now become a major sales destination, and the export to Norway and other Scandinavian countries are showing wonderful growth figures as well. This year, Belgium has access to the Brazilian market for the first time ever. That export went fairly positively during its first season. It’s a large, vast country with a fractured retail landscape, and consumers still have to become familiar with Conference. The volumes sold are still limited, but for a first year, we’re satisfied. However, we can’t just have a replacement for the Russian market at the ready, so we’ll have to find multiple sales countries.”

For some years now, BFV has been active with Conference pears on the Chinese market, and that export also increases annually. “China is a complex country, but we have now found our way fairly well in order to service both the smaller fruit shops and the larger e-commerce channels, wholesalers and retailers. Over the years, we managed to reach many Chinese consumers, but there are still plenty of Chinese consumers that we haven’t reached yet, so we’ll continue holding tastings in shops unrelentingly in coming years. After all, reaching all Chinese consumers isn’t as easy as reaching all consumers in Liechtenstein,” Marc says, smiling. “Regarding the export of Belgian pears to China, we could easily say it’s been a success, but it still has a lot of potential. It’s important to enter the Chinese market with a tasty pear that has a high brix, because we can make a difference with flavour compared to pears of other origins.”

Country and customer-specific requirements
When asked if China could become the largest export market for Belgian pears in roughly five years, Marc answers: “That would require reading tea-leaves. In China, our Conference doesn’t just compete with other pears, but also with other types of fruit such as kiwi fruit, cherries and pineapples. Fortunately, we’ve seen export steadily growing. When we just started exporting to China, buyers had to ask us what kind of pear it was, by people now know the pear and our Truval brand quite well. We’re proud that our marketing efforts bore fruit. For now, the area eligible for export to China limits us to export larger volumes. However, we don’t just see that on the Chinese market. In the US and Canada, and for certain German retailers, we’re also dealing with country and customer-specific requirements that we have to meet. It’s our job to respond to that as optimally as possible. As the largest supplier of Conference pears globally, we have great responsibility towards our producers and buyers.”

The BFV has now also bought exclusive rights for the sales of Red Conference in Belgium. “We’re still early in the evaluation process, but the first conclusions weren’t negative. There are many reasons to assume the pear can be compared to green Conference regarding productivity, flavour and shelf life. We’ll now have to see how this pear variety does in the coming season. In any case, it takes time before production really gets going, but considering the red pears are all the rage mostly outside of Europe, the variety has it in it to become a great niche product. A positive side effect is that growers know the production of Conference pears, so it takes less to persuade them to grow the variety,” Marc says.

Optimal area management for Jonagold
For apples, the situation regarding far-reaching export is particularly calm in Belgium this year. “Stocks are very limited and due to shortages on the domestic market, the majority isn’t exported. We look at how a specific apple range can be offered on the domestic market regarding the apple variety selection. We do that with, for instance, varieties such as Belgica and Kizuri, but also with better Jonagold varieties. Jonagold is beloved in Belgium, and we definitely wouldn’t dismiss this classic. However, we are working hard on optimising area management in future. On the Belgian market, about 40 to 60 million kilograms of Jonagold is sold, but during great seasons, we produce as much as 170 million kilograms. Sales aren’t becoming easier, particularly for sizes that were eagerly bought in Eastern Europe in the past.”

“Additionally, we can be very distinctive overseas with the Joly Red apple, which we market in cooperation with our colleagues from Margraten. This apple was developed especially for the Asian markets, and it’s seen as a premium apple in countries such as Vietnam and India; it’s appreciated year-round. We now manage to sell more than 10,000 tonnes of apples from Belgium in India. The question is whether we’ll also be given these chances when other production countries, with Poland in the lead, have record harvests next season. These countries haven’t been standing still regarding production, processing and packing, and they have considerably lower cost prices than do Belgium and the Netherlands. Each season will have its own challenges,” Marc concludes.

For more information:
Marc Evrard
Belgische Fruitveiling
Montenakenweg 82
3800 Sint-Truiden - Belgium
+32 11 69 34 11

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