The Association of South Tyrolean Fruit Cooperatives from Terlan includes 12 cooperatives with 4,600 family farms, of which 300 are purely organic.
As Werner Castiglioni, Managing Director of the Biosüdtirol cooperative, a member farm of the VOG, tells us, the association produces 42,000 tons of organic apples per year, making it one of the largest producers in this sector in Europe. We spoke with Castiglioni and Hannes Tauber (Head of Marketing, VOG) about the current organic apple production and new developments of VOG.
Werner Castiglioni and Hannes Tauber
Sales in 40 countries worldwide
"Of the 42,000 tons of organic produce, 35,000 tons count as fresh produce. The apples are exported to more than 40 countries worldwide. These include countries such as Dubai or Singapore as well as countries in South America. Meanwhile the demand is on a very good level. We are trying to build up the organic market in the respective countries together with local, interested partners. Particularly in countries where the organic market is not yet so well developed, we try to pass on our knowledge," says Castiglioni.
Furthermore, he said, he is noticing a growing interest on the part of customers from non-European countries in the organic sector. "Ninety percent of the product is marketed mainly to Europe. But we now have local partners, such as in Dubai, where organic produce is a serious issue. That's another reason why we're producing more apples with good shelf life, such as Red-Pop, the Little Big Sweet, which is particularly well suited for marketing in Asia."
Year-round supply of organic apples
As a result of the association's intensive efforts, it is now possible to offer organic apples year-round - including by means of special summer varieties. "These apples have a long shelf life and good quality, which is why customers can do without goods from overseas," Castiglioni says. Given the problems in logistics, as well as in other areas affecting the fruit and vegetable industry, it is also advantageous to be able to offer more local produce, he adds.
Organic farming has grown relatively quickly and strongly, Castiglioni says. "We have reached about 1,000 hectares, which is about 10 percent of the total area. Thirty years ago, we started with eight farms, and now we're at just over 300. It's mainly young farmers who have pushed this development. However, members are of course free to decide which production direction they want to take," Castiglioni states.
He adds that the trend has increased sharply in recent years, but that they are currently in an observation phase. "The organic market tends to progress in waves and currently it is stagnating a bit. However, given the numbers, I'm confident that organic cultivation will pick up again."
Aside from the challenges regarding the cost of energy, packaging, logistics, etc., the issue of employee or staff shortages is less of a problem, he said, because VOG members are family farms. "The small structure as well as the high number of members is therefore a huge advantage," Castiglioni says.
Increasing demand for contract varieties
According to Castiglioni, interest in contract varieties is also on the rise: "The trade notices that you stand out from the rest thanks to the additional information you can convey with club brands. For South Tyrol in particular, differentiation by means of contract varieties is very important, since many small families are behind the products and not large companies. It is precisely this added value that we must be able to convey."
Growing apples that win over customers
According to Tauber, the Gala, Braeburn, Granny Smith and Golden Delicious varieties continue to enjoy great popularity, which is why they are always found on supermarket shelves. Newer varieties such as Sweettango®, on the other hand, stand out for their special flavor characteristics, says Tauber. This variety is harvested early and marketed accordingly. The temporal focus for this commodity is September/October.
"Following on from the apple mentioned, Kanzi®, a very crisp and fresh apple, is finding its way to market as is Pink Lady®, which has made a breakthrough as an independent brand. From spring to summer, we also offer new branded apples such as Red Pop®, Giga® and Cosmic Crisp®. Our range is to be constantly improved and expanded. After all, our goal is to offer those apples on the shelves that appeal to consumers," says Tauber.
Further development of snacking apples
Snacking apples have become particularly popular with younger target groups, as these fruits are easy to transport and suitable for consumption at work, sports, school, etc., says Tauber. "Red Pop® as well as Little Big Sweet as well as Kanzi®, each with a caliber of 65-70, are wonderful for snacking. However, our range also includes much smaller varieties, some of which are under 60 caliber. In general, we are constantly researching and developing in this segment."
100 percent plastic-free packaging units
In recent years, he said, the company has gone from 0 to 100 percent plastic-free trays for the Biosüdtirol product brand. Also on offer are compostable bags, for which the additional cost of the material was ten times higher than conventional plastic bags even before the current crises. The extra cost of grass paper can only be passed on in part, because consumers are only willing to pay more for sustainable products to a certain extent.
"But it's also in our interest to be able to market the products of the growers, who have put a lot of work into the goods, accordingly. Even if it means that we have to bear some of the costs ourselves in order to be able to guarantee actual sustainability," says Tauber.
The two umbrella brands: Bio Marlene and Biosüdtirol, each of which is intended to address different target groups. The packaging is 100 percent plastic-free.
Full-year availability requires strategic rethinking
In order to be able to guarantee the year-round availability mentioned by Castiglioni at the beginning, this also requires "category management". Tauber explains that what is meant here is a system which, on the one hand, can be individually tailored to the respective retail partners, the respective country, the target group, etc., but which, on the other hand, is also to be used to design the ideal sales shelf with the partners.
"This way, we generate a win-win-win situation, so to speak, i.e.: profitable value creation for producers, retail partners and consumers. Category management offers a variety of ways to reach consumers and encourage them to buy the products. We also want to present the apple as a modern product. To do this, we also look at the needs of consumers themselves: what do they want today and what are the trends of tomorrow? The apple should be experienced, whether at the point of sale or beyond, for example via social media or media campaigns, apple tours, visits to the farm, and much more," Tauber concludes.