The Belgian fruit and vegetable cooperative BelOrta closed 2022 with a record €507 million turnover. Although that is two percent higher than in 2021, the overall supply decreased by four percent. The cooperative reports that many products had lower supplies due to a different production schedule from previous years.
"The costs for things like energy, staff, and raw materials increased and had a not-to-be-underestimated major effect on BelOrta growers' productions. They often have to plan far ahead regarding sowing, planting, harvesting, or storing top fruit. Such planning is highly risky, especially in uncertain, volatile times. Aside from production uncertainty, consumer buying changed because of unprecedented inflation and decreased purchasing power," says the BelOrta report.
Higher energy costs greatly affected fruit-vegetable production
According to the organization, if it were a normal season, many tomato varieties would have fetched decent prices. However, the increased cost of both energy and raw materials greatly affected many growers' and crops' operating results. "Also, many vegetable specialties had a noticeably harder time than standard ones. Reduced purchasing power seems to impact mainly products with higher (kilogram) prices."
Cucumber production (at BelOrta and elsewhere) was considerably lower than last year, resulting in a better median price. The eggplant season had a difficult start, but that improved in the year's second half, while the bell pepper season was rather mixed, with a slightly lower result than in 2021. Pricier energy not only directly affects production but indirectly, too. It is often much trickier to grow fruit-vegetables at lower greenhouse temperatures.
"We're seeing a resurgence of certain vegetables in the hospitality and food service sectors after the two pandemic years. Demand for, for example, specific grades of asparagus reflects that. Nevertheless, the unpredictable weather made the asparagus season course erratic. It started well, had a dismal May, but a somewhat better end in June. We saw a similar course with a lot of leafy crops. A good start, a weak middle, and a better season-ending."
Leeks, again, had a divided year. The 2021 growing season went well and resulted in high yields per kilo. Combined with a mild winter, that resulted in low prices in 2022's first half. "Last year's dry, hot summer negatively affected production and supply, so the market rebounded slightly in the fall. Cauliflower's year was truly up and down, supply and pricing-wise, resulting in a below-average annual average price."
The chicory market situation was bad from January to mid-August. "The market then recovering, unfortunately, couldn't compensate for the damage suffered. Last year, purchasing power, energy, the international market situation, and the ever-rapidly emerging, changing, and disappearing consumption trends could make or break a product's results."
Soft and stone fruit had a better summer
Strawberries had a solid commercial start to the season. "From mid-April, however, it went downhill rapidly for over a month. The convergence of many local and overseas production led to a temporary supply explosion, obviously disastrous for the market price. After that, supply and demand balanced out again, and prices improved."
Quality-wise, 2022 was a much better soft fruit year than 2021, with its rain-drenched summer. "Supply and demand were reasonably well balanced during the Belgian season, resulting in relatively stable pricing. Cherry production returned to normal. A pleasing change after the very difficult 2021 season. Thanks to centralized hydro cooling and sorting, we could work very flexibly regarding varieties and packaging, both strong assets, with a view to smooth marketing."
Notably, in 2022, BelOrta's recently launched concept products, BelOplum (plum) and BelOmelon (melons), developed further. "Growers, traders, and consumers alike warmly welcome both projects. Local, sustainable cultivation is clearly appreciated. We'll continue along this path in 2023."
Sky-high top fruit storage costs - Stronger Conference position
The past top fruit season was challenging, not only because of the vast volumes harvested throughout Europe. "The massive rise in storage costs means products are marketed more quickly and, so, are offered in a less staggered manner. That's naturally terrible for pricing."
"Plus, the war in Ukraine and expensive transport costs also affect our export. Yet it's not all doom and gloom for top fruit. Our Conference pears are perpetuating their good quality image and are finding more and more new final destinations. Existing markets also keep expanding."
Concerning apples, BelOrta jas another problematic year due to too-large European productions. "During last fall's harvest, many batches were immediately offered for sale because of high storage costs. That put the market under tremendous pressure. European stocks were lower at the end of 2022. We, thus, hope things will improve at the beginning of 2023."
Philippe Appeltans and Luc Vanoirbeek
Impact of less buying power on organic fruit and vegetables
As with some specialty and convenience products, the cooperative noted a substantial inflation effect on organic products too. "Certain occasional organic buyers are more likely to choose cheaper alternatives, which sales figures reflect. Nonetheless, there was good news on the organic front. Last summer's warm weather positively impacted our organic soft fruit quality. That benefited sales and consumption, especially compared to the extremely wet 2021."
The dry weather often affected many fruit and vegetable sizes. Smaller calibers often also lead to lower supply. In an inflationary year like 2022, that does not always translate into better prices, even though organic producers need that to remain profitable. "By the end of 2022, however, demand improved again, a momentum we hope will continue in 2023."
CO2 reduction plan rollout fits with drive for more sustainable production and trade
"In early October, we published our yearly sustainability report. We keep working steadily and with results on fixed themes. These concern grower partnerships, reducing the ecological footprint, care for people and society, and attention to natural, healthy products," the cooperative continues. BelOrta has managed to call itself a UN SDG Pioneer for several years.
"A distinction only awarded to companies that achieve far-reaching sustainability goal results. But that doesn't mean we're resting on our laurels. We're fully committed to reducing our CO2 emissions by 42% by 2030 (compared to 2020). The SBTi (Science Based Targets initiative) confirmed and approved that plan. BelOrta is, therefore, one of a select few Belgian companies that have already set clear targets in this area."
BelOrta turns ten and keeps building on the future
BelOrta turns ten this year. "Of course, we'll celebrate this. However, our focus is on the future. As our cooperative has expanded, we've regularly faced many challenges. Cultivating fruits and vegetables with all the unpredictable weather and increasingly stringent legislation is tough enough. Yet, in 2014 we faced a severe Russia ban - we lost a valuable apple and pear market, but also one for a lot of fruit-vegetables. Brexit, the pandemic, and most recently, the global energy crisis and skyrocketing inflation also make for a very bumpy ride."
"Politicians wishing to raise their profiles, sadly, sometimes implement very unnuanced regulations. Our producers' hard work, thus, suffers. Just think of the ever-changing packaging legislation, the MAP7 discussions, and the nitrogen ruling's consequences for horticultural companies' further development chances. Producing healthy food isn't a given, something of which governments and other responsible parties should be more aware. Food production shouldn't become politicized. It's something proud family farms do with passion every day."
BelOrta keeps believing in the future and wants to bear its responsibility in pursuing and achieving a livable income for its affiliated growers. The letter of intent signed with the Belgian Fruit Auction (BFV) in early February 2022 proved that. "Those talks were finalized and sealed in a legal agreement in late 2022."
"The Belgian Competition Authority should give its final approval by mid-2023. The goal: full operational integration by July 1, 2023. We'll appropriately communicate with affected growers, employees, and customers in the coming weeks."
The BelOrta cooperative includes more than 900 growers, 1,300 after the BFV integration. It is, thus, happy to take up the gauntlet and is greatly enthusiastic about the future. "We're convinced that working together pays off, with everyone in the chain - from farm to fork - reaping the benefits."
"In the coming year, our proud BelOrta growers will once again work hard to provide the tastiest, highest-quality vegetables and juiciest fruit every day. Locally grown, fresh, flavorful, and wonderfully pleasing to all who eat them," the cooperative concludes.
For more information:
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