Lowie Claessens:

“Flavourful blackberries are the future”

“The future is black,” says Lowie Claessens of Driscoll’s. He’s referring to blackberries. Before the future is black, though, some steps still have to be taken, in the field of varieties and supply, among other things. The blackberry market is growing, but compared to other soft fruits, it’s still a small market. Driscoll’s invests in blackberries, and is working on good varieties and stable, year-round supply.

“The blackberry season is going well in our opinion,” Lowie says. “Both from the north and the south we’ve seen good quality blackberries. To us, it’s important the blackberries taste well so that consumers will return to them.” He has immediately mentioned the bottleneck for the growth of the blackberry market. “To us, flavour is the key to the future of blackberries in supermarkets. With a good flavour, blackberries have potential.”

Limited sales area
In the past 20 years, the Loch Ness variety was grown mostly. “This is a variety that only tastes well if it’s picked when ripe, but the blackberry then has to reach consumers very quickly,” Lowie explains. Due to the limited shelf life, the border of the sales area is reached quickly. “It differs per variety, but the blackberries have to be picked at the correct ripeness. That’s restrictive. With our Driscoll’s Victoria™ variety we now have a variety with a good flavour and a shelf life of at least six to eight days, so that you can reach a considerable area.”

That can also be seen on sales markets. The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany are relatively close, so that large volumes can be sold here. The north of Scandinavia is further away, and therefore more difficult to reach. “In production methods, improvement and development we have to bear this in mind, and in some cases we’ll have to produce closer to the market.”

Global production
Right now, Driscoll’s produces in greenhouses and tunnels in the Netherlands and Belgium. They’re also producing in Southern Europe and Morocco. Driscoll’s grows all of their blackberries under cover. “In winter periods, we also grow in Mexico, among other places,” he continues. The winter production is difficult, but they’re working on finding alternatives for this. Illuminated production in greenhouses is an option, but production with cooled plant material in Morocco, Spain or Portugal could also be an option.

Thanks to air transport, the production in Morocco is an option during the winter months. “It doesn’t really matter where you fly from then. From Mexico, the blackberries would also be on the dock within 24 hours.” On the other hand, transport per lorry takes several days from Morocco. “But quality and flavour is also important in that case.”

Illuminated production on the rise
In the production, two trends will be decisive, according to Lowie. “The first is that production will occur in areas where labour is available and affordable. The second is security in quantity and quality, which is how you’ll end up in more advanced systems,” Lowie explains. The combination of the two, an advanced greenhouse in the south, for example, results in a win-win situation. “Perhaps we’ll have to buy a greenhouse in Scandinavia to supply the market there, but it depends on you product and genetics.”

Very advanced production systems, such as illumination, are on the rise, although it’s still important to have plenty of volume. “Prices can’t stay high forever. A good product can be sold at higher prices, but it should also be affordable for consumers. That requires looking at the costs.” Prices can be a reason not to buy blackberries for consumers. “That’s the result of the niche situations the blackberries come from. By supplying retailers with larger volumes, extreme pricing can be taken from the market,” he continues. Raspberries are experiencing a similar development. Due to the larger volume, the market grew and prices dropped, but it should and has to be possible to make money as well.

Flavour, flavour, flavour
“You should never ever put a blackberry on your shelves that doesn’t taste good, because consumers stop buying blackberries for some weeks after one bad experience,” Lowie says. “Everyone in blackberries should be working on this.” He therefore regrets varieties are still being grown despite not tasting well, but with which much money can be made. “That’s a shame when you’re trying to build a market. It’s a sensitive market, and blackberries that didn’t taste good have been sold to consumers too often.”

In recent years, the blackberry market has grown considerably, and can continue to do so, “if we manage to market a good product,” Lowie continues. “But the market can be broken just as easily by marketing a bad product.” He’s referring to the UK, where the blackberry market’s showing a trend that’s going up and down. “That had everything to do with the product being offered. We have to dare to succeed in that, and sell a product that meets consumers’ wishes.”

Varieties that don’t meet the strict requirements, flavour being an important one, aren’t taken into the assortment. “Each of our packaging is an advertisement for the consumer, so we have to have a good product. That means sometimes not doing something, but selling a product that isn’t good, is the worst you can do.” He calls on the entire sector to choose blackberries with good eating characteristics, and not to look at the short term too much. “We have to build a market, and bad blackberries will destroy that market.”

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Lowie Claessens

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