The year 2020 will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the most turbulent of recent times. So says Philippe Appeltans, Managing Director (MD) of BelOrta in Belgium. The COVID-19 virus' effects clearly amplified the food sector's crucial role in society as a whole. "We continuously served the Belgian public daily with tasty, fresh fruit and vegetables, even in this time of crisis. That's thanks to the relentless commitment and dedication of our producers, employees, and clients."
"We concluded the 2020 calendar year with a product turnover of €480 million. That's seven percent more than in 2019. And it represents total sales of 665 million units of fresh fruit and vegetables (approx. 490 million kg). However, it should come as no surprise that 2020 will go down in history as a year of extremes. The balance, therefore, varies greatly from one product group to another," says Philippe.
Hard year for vegetables eaten mostly out-of-home
Tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce varieties - the hospitality and foodservice industries and other out-of-home situations strongly drive the consumption of these kinds of products. Combined with frequent high production periods, it became a tough year for certain products. But at BelOrta, other products, including chicory, had one of the strongest years of the last decade. This was supported by the "buy locally" trend Belgian shoppers have been following since March.
There was a slight, general increase (+6%) in the volume of vegetables grown under glass. But there was a slight decrease (-4%) for those grown outdoors. Cucumbers, red bell peppers, and vine and plum tomatoes were the strongest risers in terms of supply. Cauliflower, courgettes, and aubergines experienced a decline. There was about the same volume of other major products as in 2019. These include head and multicolored lettuce, leek, and chicory.
Two speeds for fruit
As per usual, the 2019/2020 top fruit season has two distinct parts. "In the first months of 2020, our apples and pears sales went relatively smoothly. The 2020 harvest season presented itself somewhat differently. Our apples' marketing went rather well. That was partly due to the limited volume available. But pears had a much harder time. That was because of higher pear harvests throughout Europe," says Philippe. A bright spot is the club variety effect. That showed strong results for, among others, the now-familiar Kanzi® apple and the brand new Fred® pear.
"After the 2019 record year, sweet cherry volumes returned to a 1,7 million kg volume last year. That was partly due to the difficult weather conditions during the flowering period. Fewer cherries, but still of absolute top quality." The Flemish Minister of Agriculture, Hilde Crevits, confirmed this. She visited BelOrta at the beginning of June. That was part of the cherry season's official start.
Strawberry volumes were also a little lower. At 9 million kg in 2020, it was ten percent lower than the previous year. "Sales were better, though. Belgian and overseas consumers enjoyed this healthy snack. Results for our berry range - raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and redcurrants - vary wildly. Typical hospitality items like blackberries had a rough year. But other product sales, including blueberries, fared better. That's thanks, in part, to lower yields," continues Appeltans.
"Supply diversification and renewal are an important part of our fruit policy. We successfully introduced the Belgian plum, BelOplum, in 2018. Following that, last year, we were again able to present a brand new variety - the Belgian melon, BelOmelon. This innovation smacks of more. Belgians can, therefore, expect to enjoy the summery, local flavor this year."
Organics keeps growing steadily
"Organic products have been on the rise since 2010, and we see that too," says the BelOrta MD. "BelOrta's total organic product expenditure as well as its offer continues to climb steadily. In the past season, we've seen an increase in the greenhouse vegetable acreage, among other things. We've also introduced new varieties to the market, including launching organic kohlrabi. Our top three organic products are, once again, chicory, cucumber, and tomatoes. Organic apples, pears, and blueberries achieved equally good production figures.
Packaging: even in challenging times, we choose to look ahead
"In July, we officially opened a brand-new crate washing plant at our site in Sint-Katelijne-Waver. That was done with the Flemish Environmental Minister, Zuhal Demir's approval. This is an important step towards sustainable packaging. Thanks to these new facilities, we can optimally use environmentally-friendly, folding crates. We didn't stand still in the small packaging area either. Here, we established our new Sort & Pak department in BelOrta Zellik."
BelOrta also realized many (small) packaging ideas in 2020. These include band role packaging (for tomatoes, cucumbers, etc.), a 500g cardboard snack bucket, and an MDF box. Thanks to its sturdiness, this is an excellent second-life packaging.
"BelOrta as a (brand) image for local fruit and vegetables: from familiar to preferred"
In recent years, the BelOrta brand has been introduced to Belgian consumers as a comprehensive media mix. "As a result, we can now call ourselves one of the best-known fruit and vegetable brands in Belgian stores," says Philippe. "People also increasingly prefer the BelOrta brand. After all, BelOrta products are grown with a great deal of expertise and passion. There's a focus on taste, freshness, and sustainability, and clear local anchoring. In 2021, we'll continue to draw attention to this among Belgian end consumers."
Looking ahead (and across the border)
"The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic severely hampered our ongoing internationalization of recent years. Nevertheless, in 2020 - true to our philosophy - we continued to innovate and expand the market. Last year, BelOrta products once again found their way to more than 70 countries worldwide."
In conclusion: 2020 drew more attention than ever to the role of cooperative business
"The year 2020 will, no doubt, be firmly engraved in our collective memories. It was the dividing line in modern society's evolution. We could soon well be referring to the pre- and post-COVID era in our history books. In any case, the continuing key role of cooperative enterprise - going to market together - is beyond dispute. Innovative capacity and international business remain at the core of our business, even in difficult times."
"As do efforts in the area of sustainability and continuous daring and ambition. In 2020, the Flemish Business Network (VOKA) recognized BelOrta as Company of the Year. We were awarded the SDG Pioneer Certificate for Sustainable Development by the United Nations (UN) too. These are two great recognitions that only motivate our producers and us," Appeltans says.
"We'll continue along our chosen path and meet the many challenges we face. And these challenges will certainly be present in 2021. The Corona crisis' consequences and Brexit are at the forefront. But the Russian ban still has lasting effects, as does the increasing competition for several products from outside Europe. Then there are goals in the area of organics and the packaging issue. These are just a few of the challenges."
This Belgian cooperative faces several critical production challenges too. "The labor issue remains a thorny one. But, now more than ever, a scope for enterprise and production is needed. Last year taught us a great deal. Food security was, however, a crucial issue. That's why we welcome the fact that the UN declared 2021 the year of fruit and vegetables."
"BelOrta's staff and producers give their all in this respect. But, they're also asking for a strong support base and space. This declaration shouldn't remain mere words. We, as a cooperative, must reach this goal in a sustainable, forward-looking manner," Philippe concludes.