Although not so well-known on the global fresh produce trading scene, Serbia has a rapidly growing modern production base of a wide range of fresh fruits and vegetables, notably apples, berries and stonefruit. Having traditionally focused on the Russian market, Serbian exporters now have their eyes firmly set on finding long-term partners within the UK’s retail, import and wholesale sectors. Ahead of the country’s first-ever participation at The London Produce Show and Conference next month, PBUK speaks with some of the country’s leading produce players to get the inside track on what Serbia has to offer UK buyers.
Serbia is among the largest fruit producers in southeast Europe and it continues to grow, but the country remains largely undiscovered from a trading standpoint because of a lack of promotion and an historic focus on the Russian market.
So says Alex Pavlović, Director of the USAID Competitive Economy Project, which is working to promote Serbia's fresh and frozen produce offer to the world’s most demanding markets in cooperation with specialised trade and marketing agency Agrobrand.
“Serbia is an undiscovered jewel in terms of its fruit offer, and should be considered as a reliable supplier for the UK market,” Pavlović tells PBUK. “Serbia has a very pleasant, warm climate and can offer big volumes of tasty, juicy, colourful fruits in wide range of packaging. We have the quality, quantity and continuity, as well as competitive prices. All that Serbia has lacked until now is much more promotion of its produce.”
According to Julka Toskić, Director of Agrobrand, Serbia ranks as one of the largest apple producers in southeast Europe, and accounts for 8 per cent of the world’s berry production; accounting for 21,861ha of raspberries (producing 109,742 tonnes in 2017), 5,076ha of blackberries (28,224 tonnes), 7,054ha of strawberries (30,106 tonnes), and 1,809ha of other berries (5,615 tonnes), of which high bush blueberry acreage is rising rapidly.
Serbia also commercially produces pears, peaches, nectarines, plums, cherries, sour cherries and different vegetables, including peppers and cabbage. Production of organic fruit has begun to rapidly increase in recent years too, particularly organic raspberries.
However, fruit exports from Serbia to the UK have been fairly limited to date, mainly because Russia has long been Serbia’s traditional export market. But looking ahead, producers are viewing the UK as a clear target market, instead of directly exporting almost all of their fruit to one market.
“We believe now is the right time to establish a business relationship with the UK,” Toskić explains. “In the future, the UK can expect a wide range of fruits and vegetables from Serbia. Due to the size of our domestic market, Serbian growers are generally export-oriented, and our export numbers are rising higher every year in terms of volume and value.”
Gojko Zagorac, development director at Serbian apple producer Verda Vivo Company, adds another timely reason for why UK buyers should take notice of Serbia at this juncture.
“Because of the fact that Serbia isn’t a member of the European Union, it will be good opportunity for the import of goods [into the UK] after Brexit,” he explains.
“Historically, Serbia is a country with good production of fruits and vegetables, and fruit production is growing every year. Producers and exporters want to open new markets, so if Serbian exporters can find good sale channels in the UK, exports to Russia will be reduced.”
With regards to Serbia’s offer, Petar Celic, director of Al Dahra Rudnap – a supplier of apples and blueberries – believes there are three important points to mention regarding Serbia’s supply potential.
“Our ground is still relatively virgin and unspoilt; secondly, we are not that far from the UK so goods can be easily transported by truck in four to five days, and, thirdly, if an agreement is made and a loading schedule agreed you can be absolutely sure that it will be respected and organised as per the schedule,” he notes.
Celic is also quick to add Serbia’s reputation for producing good-tasting fruit, and the ability of many exporters to pack on request as two further assets.
“We want the UK to be aware that in Serbia we know how to grow top-class products,” he says. “Pure taste is something we are proud of. The UK is a big market that has a delicate taste and demands only the best. To have our fruits on the tables of UK consumers would mean a lot. Regardless of the commodity, Serbia has the quality, quantity and ability to pack fruits as per client needs/requests.”
Nikola Mojsilovic, director of apple and peach supplier PIK Juzni Banat, agrees that product flavour, as well as price, is a point of difference for Serbia.
“Our products are famous for their quality,” she says. “They differ in taste; they are very juicy, they have a high percentage of fruit sugars, and a long shelf-life, with modern packaging that follows the latest world trends.
“Second of all, we are very price-competitive since we have lower productions costs than other parts of Europe. Our main advantage is great quality with good prices.”
Vladimir Vecic of Agroprom – a grower of apples, strawberries and stonefruit – concurs with the price vs. quality argument, adding that as production expands in Serbia its continuity of supply presents another strength.
“We can offer good quality for the most affordable prices, and we can make long-term programmes of supply,” he explains. “With our growing orchards and high-end harvesting technologies and cold-storage systems, we can offer fresh products all year round. Therefore, exports are most likely to increase.”
Indeed, fruit production has been classified as a driver of agricultural development in Serbia, meaning subsidies are available to producers, including IPARD funds from the European Commission, to expand production, to build ultra-low oxygen (ULO) controlled-atmosphere coldstores, and to acquire agro-machinery.
For this reason, huge investments into Serbia’s fruit sector are anticipated in the future.
“Serbia is mainly an agricultural country which is getting more and more into the agribusiness,” notes Celic from Al Dahra Rudnap. “A lot of people have recognised Serbia as a good place to make serious financial investments in the production of fruits or vegetables.
“This is only the start; once others see that it’s possible to export to the UK and it makes sense to export there, others will start to follow, so for sure the number of suppliers will grow. We want to slowly grow our trust with clients and to be recognised as a high-quality and trustworthy supplier.”
Modernising apple production
In particular, Serbian producers have been busy investing considerable funds into expanding and modernising their apple production capabilities.
As a result, Toskić from Agrobrand states that Serbia’s apple crop has soared to 400,000 tonnes – almost double the level of 10 years ago – and is set to reach 500,000 tonnes shortly, with the potential for more as many new orchards continue to be established.
Currently, total planted area with apples stands at 25,134ha, of which there are at least 2,500ha of intensive apple orchards that will reach their full yield potential in the coming years. Such is the pace of growth that a national apple producer organisation is in the process of being established with the support of USAID.
“In one decade, Serbian producers have established a modern apple production base,” Toskić explains. “The orchards have irrigation, fertigation, anti-hail and anti-frost systems. There are ultra-low oxygen controlled-atmosphere coldstores to keep the apples for a long period, and the packhouses have sizers and different kinds of packaging to satisfy UK buyers.”
Thanks to this modern set-up, Toskić indicates that yields per hectare under intensive production are in the region of 60-80 tonnes, with a high percentage of first-class quality apples. In addition, Serbian producers have acquired a number of required quality standards, like GlobalGAP, HACCP and IFS. This season, the BRC quality standard will be implemented as well.
Added to that, Toskić notes that Serbia has a range of modern apple varieties to offer, such as Gala, Braeburn, Golden and Red Delicious, Granny Smith, Fuji, Jonagold, Idared and various club apple varieties, including Crimson Snow®. Starting in August, Serbia also has an early harvesting window compared with its European counterparts.
“Due to modern production techniques, high yields and a significant percentage of first-class apples, Serbian producers should be recognised as sustainable suppliers for UK buyers as their production is priced competitively with other European countries which already export apples to the UK market,” Toskić explains.
“Our interest in the UK comes following deep market analysis which shows there is a lot of space to supply the UK with Serbian apples. Serbian companies are looking to establish long-term relationships with UK buyers and to be recognised for their quality of apples.”
Promoting Serbia in the UK
As a first step to promoting Serbia as a potential supplier to the UK, eight apple and berry exporters are exhibiting at The London Produce Show and Conference for the first time next month (June), supported by USAID.
The group represents half of Serbia’s total apple production (over 100,000 tonnes), and comprises: Agroprom, Al Dahra Rudnap, Atos Fructum, Ćirić Agro, Green Energy Group, PIK Juzni Banat, Pollino Agrar and Verda Vivo.
“Serbia is interested in establishing links with UK retailers, importers and wholesale, Toskić points out. “Our intention is to promote our beautiful country and our modern apple producers in the UK.”
Toskić says for those interested in Serbia’s offer, a Buyers’ Mission may be organised during the apple harvest to enable UK buyers to meet Serbian producer-exporters and to see first-hand the production sites and storage facilities.
Each of the eight Serbian exporters attending the LPS18 has an interesting story to tell:
- Agroprom: As well as apples, Agroprom produces pears, cherries, sour cherries, plums and strawberries. Its estimated volumes are 5,000 tonnes of apples per year, and up to 1,000 tonnes of strawberries per season. Agroprom is looking to collaborate long-term with UK retailers and wholesalers.
- Al Dahra Rudnap: On top of growing apples, Al Dahra Rudnap produces berries; including: Duke, Bluecrop, Aurora and Spartan blueberries from May until mid-July. Its apple offer comprises: Gala, Fuji, Golden delicious, Red delicious, Granny Smith, Idared and Red Jonaprince, and is available from August until May. Al Dahra Rudnap is keen to establish solid partner-like relationships in the UK.
- Atos Fructum: Besides producing apples, the company grows grapes and produces its own wines.
- Ćirić Agro: In addition to its 250ha of modern apple production, this grower owns a large vegetable production area across open fields and glasshouses, as well as field crop production covering 6,000ha.
- Green Energy Group: As well as producing apples, this well-organised cooperative operates a milk factory for the production of milk, yogurt and cream.
- PIK Juzni Banat: A large producer of apples and peaches, PIK belongs to Agromarket, one of the biggest private agricultural holding in Serbia. Its biggest-selling apple varieties are: Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Red Delicious and Gala. PIK’s initial goal is to export to the UK market approximately 5-10 per cent of its annual production over the next five years.
- Pollino Agrar: Operating 50ha of modern orchards with ULO cold storage facilities, Pollino Agrar grows a broad range of produce: apples, pears, peaches, apricots, plums, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, carrots, potatoes and onions. Pollino Agrar aspires to establish a footing on the European market and elsewhere by implementing the latest production and packaging methods.
- Verda Vivo: A producer of the club apple variety Crimson Snow®, Verda Vivo plans to double its production area in next two years. Overall, the firm produces five apple varieties – Golden Delicious, Gala, Granny, Fuji and Crimson Snow – and can export other varieties such as Red Jonaprince or Red Delicious. In 2018/19, Verda Vivo expects to produce more than 6,000 tonnes of apples, and its sale window is August to May. The company is interested in the UK retail market.
These eight Serbian exporters will be exhibiting at The London Produce Show and Conference 2018 (LPS18) on 6-8 June.
In addition, Alex Pavlović, Director of the USAID Competitive Economy Project in Serbia, will be speaking about Serbia’s position as an emerging supplier when he takes part in the LPS18 Educational Seminar Programme.
Join Alex’s seminar on Thursday 7 June at 12.30pm on Stage 1, The Great Room Balcony.
Register your attendance for the LPS18 here.
Explore the agenda for the event here.
Learn more about Serbia’s fruit offer via: serbiadoesfruit.com