During the pandemic, organic products, not least organic apples, experienced a great deal of hype, but this came to an abrupt halt with the war in Ukraine. "Consumers are definitely buying more organic goods again, but increasingly at discounters. However, the sales figures in the natural food trade are again comparable to 2019," Birgit Gutberlett, managing director of Ökobo GmbH, tells us.
Birgit Gutberlett-Geisinger at Biofach 2023
Stock goods available until July
"We supply exclusively to the natural food trade. This year we were able to harvest and store good quantities. The quality at harvest was very good, which is why we have a high packout overall. However, it is definitely worth noting that local suppliers were also able to offer good goods for a long time. The pickup we would normally have expected in March didn't start moving until later."
As marketing time increases, failures due to Gloeosporium increase sharply, depending on the variety. To reduce the risk of Gloeosporium fruit rot, storage scab and more, apples are dipped in 50-52°C water for 40-50 seconds, depending on the variety. "For varieties like Elstar, Gala and Topaz, failures can be reduced from 30 percent to less than ten percent."
Future of small, owner-operated natural food stores uncertain
"To some extent, you find the same apples in supermarkets that you can buy in natural food stores. To be honest, however, you also have to admit that the logistics in food retailing are much better positioned. The natural food trade must react to this and act accordingly. The managers of small, owner-operated organic stores are often already around 50 to 60 years old and have helped to build up the organic sector and make it respectable. It remains questionable how sustainable this business model is. But those who will definitely remain are the organic chains."
Ökobo GmbH used to deliver apples even as far away as Berlin; however, it now sells a lot of local produce. "That's why our delivery area now extends to the Ruhr region and the Frankfurt area." In the natural food trade, calibers 60-75 and 70-85 are mostly sold. "In the apple crate, on the one hand, a great variety is formed, but at the same time a certain uniformity. Consumers tend to reach for smaller apples. But even in organic cultivation, a reasonable fruit size should be achieved through thinning measures, which in cultivation goes hand in hand with better picking performance and, accordingly, better sorting performance. Apples from caliber 85 end up in our cider fruit."
Flowering eight to ten days later
Lake Constance was largely spared last year's drought, he said. "At the time when many regions had problems with drought, we lived in 'green hell', so to speak, because it rained again and again in our region and the grass areas in the orchards were also always green. In recent years, budbreak took place earlier and earlier, and the risk of late frosts also increased - neither of which applied this year, however. This year, flowering began eight to ten days later, but still the apples bloom. Against the risk of hailstorms, 90 percent of the fruit is now grown under netting.
How storage costs will affect production remains to be seen, he said. "In September/October, when apples are stored, electricity consumption is highest. Many have a PV system on their roof now, but it can't cover the peaks. New contracts weren't signed until Jan. 1, 2013, which means higher energy costs won't catch up with us until the 2023 harvest."
Good sales of the high-priced Natyra
Club varieties are not very important in the natural food trade, he said. "Natyra is a free variety that sells very well. It is very high-priced, but you can get good sales without promotion. I don't think you need this extreme variety diversity, because all consumers care about anyway is that the apple is juicy and crisp, with one person perhaps preferring more red apples, the next then more tart or sweeter, etc."
Many old organic varieties are still grown, with production gradually declining, he said. "But we need to look at getting away from the conventional palette. There are already discussions about some new organic varieties. Natyra is selling very well, but it's not easy to grow. But we would need more tolerant or resistant varieties that taste good and look good at the same time."
Ökobo GmbH is an association of old organic farms that converted their production 30-40 years ago. "Because of our farm structure, no new farms have joined per se. But there has been very strong internal growth, which means individual farms have been able to expand and add acreage."