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Spanish strawberries better but not unchallenged

“In the past, Belgian and Dutch strawberries tasted better than the Spanish ones. That difference is becoming smaller,” says Ben Maes, manager of the Spanish subsidiary of Special Fruit. Special Fruit sells both Spanish strawberries of their own production and from other growers, and they do so successfully. Yet there are companies that have stopped selling Spanish strawberries. One of these is Fruit World from Breda, the Netherlands. Commercial manager Ronald van Vossen: “Our Spanish friends can do everything by themselves. As a Dutch company, we no longer have any added value.”

Channeling below cost price
For years, Fruit World sold Spanish strawberries, but they stopped doing so last year. Ronald: “In principle, Spain supplies the product themselves. The product they’ve got left over is shipped our way. This either means quality is poorer, or there’s too much supply. We have no place in that supply chain. We might be able to do something for Dutch retail, but that would place us in a price class and supply segment we from Fruit World don’t want to be a part of. I don’t feel called upon to channel products below the grower’s cost price.”

Ronald doesn’t think it’s a national trend to stop trading Spanish strawberries. “Our competitors invest a lot in Spanish production. I don’t know if that’s something you should want. The area of your competition is much larger, and volume is abundant to such a degree that I doubt if it’s of added value to the segment.”

Special Fruit is one of those competitors who invested in their own gardens in Spain. Ben : “We grow the Calinda club variety, which is a Fresh Forward variety. This variety is similar to locally grown product both regarding flavour and regarding shelf life. Throughout the season, Calinda has a wonderfully sweet flavour, and it’s less firm than other Southern European strawberries.” Ben is also satisfied with production. “Volume increases every year. Late November we started with very small quantities, but we’ve had a good production since mid-January, which increases every week.”

The weather conditions were dramatic in Spain last year, with much frost and snow. “This didn’t really affect us, neither in volume nor in quality. We can call ourselves lucky because we have a resistant variety in Calinda, even when the weather isn’t great. This year started very well. The cold weather in the south means the strawberry is ripening nicely, and it’s of perfect quality when picked.”

Regarding the free varieties, volumes are still fairly limited. “Despite the large area, the Spanish supply decreased slightly in recent years. This year it did increase somewhat again, but not a lot. The good supply from early January declined due to cold weather later in the month. In coming weeks, the weather will hopefully be better.”

Competition from greenhouses
Ben: “There’s always a certain demand for locally grown greenhouse strawberries. Some retailers want multiple lines on their shelves, and on the one hand, they focus on a good Southern European variety, but on the other hand they focus on a qualitative local product. Flavours don’t have to be different. They mostly look different because they’re separate varieties that are grown completely differently.” Special Fruit tries to have Spanish product until week 23. “Late March the regular Dutch and Belgian greenhouse production starts again. Until then, we also have strawberries from locally illuminated production.”

In Spain, hardly any strawberries are grown in greenhouses. “There are a number of parties that are experimenting with this, but due to the warm climate, this doesn’t have much added value.”

For years, Special Fruit has supplied special boxes with Saint Valentine’s Day strawberries. “Since last year, we only offer these with the Calinda variety. At such a special moment, consumers only want the best quality available, and we naturally don’t want to disappoint. We also get very nice prices for the strawberries around Saint Valentine’s Day.”

Other winter suppliers
Besides Spain, Special Fruit also imports from Egypt, Morocco and Portugal in winter. Ben: “Some supermarkets prefer certain origins. In the past, Egypt and Morocco weren’t all that popular. Spain did quite all right, and Portuguese strawberries were most popular. Because we worked very hard regarding quality, and can therefore give certain guarantees, preference for certain origins have become much less significant for our customers.”

During the winter months, Fruit World works with a production company in Ethiopia. Ronald: “We focus on specialisms. From Ethiopia we specifically get varieties that are different from the varieties on the market. From January until March we supply Ethiopian strawberries and we start with Dutch strawberries mid-April.”

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