Room for Scottish soft fruit on European market?

British soft fruit companies increasingly focus on international growth. Angus Softfruit has grown into an international player. The Dutch branch has outgrown its building several times now. Mila den Engelsman and Piet Meerkerk from Angus Soft Fruits, talk about the developments on the market. North-South relationships are becoming ever-more important, and the changing climate requires creativity and knowledge.

Angus Softfruit’s story starts in 1994, when British farmer’s son Lochy Porter decided to start growing strawberries independently. He started small, on one hectare, in England and Scotland. “He wanted to directly supply retail, that was revolutionary at the time,” Mila says. The young grower, celebrated his 50th birthday last year, succeeded in making supermarkets interested in his soft fruit. Nowadays, the company has 22 joined growers in the UK, including ten family members of owners Porter and Gray.

Global network
With a turnover last year of about 150 million pounds, Angus Softfruit can count itself one of the largest soft fruit companies in the UK. A large part of the area is covered. “In Scotland we farm on a peninsula with a very stable temperature. We have a long season because we use tunnels,” Mila explains. Several years ago, they took a step abroad on customer demand. At first they just bought overseas product, but the company later also decided to invest in the production. “The supply chain is getting shorter,” Piet adds. “As production and marketing company, you also need productions in other countries and parts of the worlds.” Angus Softfruit invests in joint ventures in Chile and Morocco, where their own varieties are grown. “We also want to be the source,” Piet says.

For three years, contact with the contract growers on the Iberian peninsula and in Morocco has been maintained from an office in Spain. The office in Chile is responsible for soft fruit from Latin America. In the coming years, they’ll also invest in the blueberry production in southern Africa. In 2015, Edward van den Eijnden started the sales office in the Netherlands. In recent years, the Dutch branch literally outgrew its building. In June 2018, the company moved to a larger building on the Handelsweg in Barendrecht.

Packing station Barendrecht
In the past, all of the soft fruit was packed in the UK, but with the move, a packing line also came to Barendrecht. “The company is working on becoming more international, and because of the close cooperation with our growers, more volume is now available for Europe,” Mila says. However, the ambitions of the company amount to more than that. In the next ten years, the company wants to gain more control of the production. “Operational and agronomical knowledge are very important in soft fruit. In the UK, we have a very knowledgeable team, we want the same in the Netherlands,” Mila continues. Piet mentions the knowledge they gathered in their team: Edward is a ‘strawberry man,’ Mila has experience in marketing and selling soft fruit, and he is an experienced buyer. In total, 11 people work in the office in Barendrecht.

“The weather is becoming more extreme, and a lot of older varieties are still being used particularly in the north of Europe,” Mila says. In Norway, for instance, Glen Ample is still grown a lot, even though this variety has been past its prime in Europe for some time now. “The production is also becoming more professional. Tunnels are used for the production more often.” The knowledge about the different varieties and the best production circumstances should benefit the growers. Which varieties do best in greenhouses and which do best outside? In what order should the varieties be planted? Which conditions and soils are ideal for a plant? The answers to these questions decide the success for the farmers. Mila says that a variety might do well in certain circumstances, but be less successful in other conditions.

Scottish soft fruit
“As Angus, we see opportunities in Scotland,” Mila continues. The Scottish growers supply more soft fruit than the local market asks for. “The varieties are good, so we’re seeing multiple opportunities for internationalising.” Piet looks back on the season, which ended in week 41: “The blueberry season has just finished. It was a good season, because Scotland also had better weather than average this summer.” In September, Angus supplied blueberries to retail on the mainland for some weeks.

The UK is mostly an import market, but the soft fruit organisations are starting to look towards the international market more and more. “In the production, focus is mostly on the British market, but companies are seeing that this is too restrictive,” Piet says. Too much focus on the domestic market can hinder the growth of British companies. The European continent is a relatively easy market for these exporters, with 400 million people in the northwest of the continent. “In the field of soft fruit, the British are ahead of the continent,” he knows. Besides, Brexit is playing its part for these companies. “It’s certain we’ll be getting more product from England and Scotland, but volumes will still be limited.”

North-South shifts in seasons
This internationalisation is also important considering the ever more extreme weather. It’s becoming more difficult to predict harvests, and deviations are also becoming larger because of this. “Local products will always come first, but there’s room for other production regions,” Mila says. The focus of the Dutch sales office is mostly on Northern Europe. Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Belgium are the most important markets.

A shift can also be seen in the production regions. Angus invested in, among other things, the production in Zimbabwe. “I’m convinced we won’t need to import from South America in Europe in ten years,” Piet says. He predicts a shift to more north-south connections. “It’s more efficient, products are fresher and it’s more sustainable. In theory, we can already fulfil this desire year-round,” he continues. The calendar year starts with supply from South Africa, after which the production shifts north. “Morocco, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Poland, the Baltic countries and Scotland,” Piet sums up the production regions until October. That month is when the harvest in South Africa and Zimbabwe starts again. “The volume isn’t quite there yet, but it’s just a matter of time.”

more information:

Angus Soft Fruits
Mila den Engelsman

Piet Meerkerk

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