The UK may already be Belgium’s leading export destination for strawberries, but the northern European country believes it can make further inroads into the market thanks to a berry offer that can complement domestic and imported strawberries and blueberries. Produce Business UK went to visit Fresh Trade Belgium and two auction houses, REO Veiling and BelOrta, to determine how Belgium can satisfy the UK’s booming berry demand
According to figures from Eurostat and VLAM (the Flanders Agricultural Marketing Board) in the January to October period of 2015 the UK received 11,015 tonnes of strawberries from Belgium or a 23% share of the country’s export total, up from 20% during the full year of 2014 when 8,476t were shipped to the UK. Currently, the UK ranks just ahead of France, Belgium’s second-biggest destination, which garners a 22% of the volume.
“The UK is important for Belgian strawberries and, increasingly, blueberries,” points out Veerle Van der Sypt, general secretary of Fresh Trade Belgium, the association that represents Belgian fruit and vegetable importers, exporters and wholesalers, fresh-cut companies and logistics service providers.
“We see opportunities for Belgium to complement the British strawberry production season and also to complement Spanish and Egyptian strawberries that are available on the UK market from December/January to May.”
Currently, Van der Sypt says Belgian strawberry exports to the UK reach their peak in autumn [from September to October], after the UK season and before Spanish arrivals. It’s this window that Belgium is keen to consolidate with a growing offer it claims is favourably similar to the UK’s own.
“Belgium has a good offer of strawberries from glasshouse production and other protected production,” she explains. “We are able to supply the UK in early springtime, before the UK starts its own production. [Belgian] supply is also available in spring/summer of course, but at that time UK production is dominant.”
What’s more, Belgium’s strawberry offer has similarities to British supply in terms of the varieties produced. According to Van der Sypt, the strawberry varieties grown in Belgium, such as Elsanta, are close to the varieties cultivated in the UK.
“British consumers are familiar with the taste [of Belgian strawberries] and they like it,” she points out. “The UK appreciates the taste but also the good shelf-life and appearance of Belgian strawberries.”
Tom Premereur, market manager at Belgian auction house REO Veiling, concurs, adding that Belgium in addition to REO’s own member-growers’ have garnered a good reputation among UK buyers and consumers when it comes to strawberries.
“Belgian quality is very high and we have a lot of knowledge in growing this fruit,” he explains. “Most of REO’s strawberries are marketed under the Tomabel label, which is very much in demand, even when there is a local production [in the UK]. Reliability is very important in strawberries.”
Last year Premereur says REO Veiling also started using its Finefleur brand – reserved [for ‘authentic’ products – to market strawberries grown by its producers using traditional methods. “People say the taste is better,” he claims. “The strawberries are grown in the sunniest months [in Belgium] from mid-April to mid-September, so the taste is superior. This is one example of how we’re re-thinking our product offer.”
Fellow auction house BelOrta, which exports the lion’s share of its strawberry crop (70%), mainly supplies the Elsanta, Elegance and Portola varieties, and sees potential in the UK for the latter two cultivars in particular.
“Our strawberries are well appreciated in the UK and other countries because of their taste and shelf-life – these are Belgium’s unique selling points for berries,” asserts the firm’s Miguel Demaeght.
“At BelOrta we keep the quality standards of our fruit at a high level – this is the basis of our success in our own country and exporting countries (both neighbouring and long-distance destinations). So UK buyers have reasons enough to source from Belorta and Belgium.”
For strawberries and soft fruit, Demaeght says the UK is becoming an important export market for BelOrta. Already, for some years now a large volume of its strawberries have gone to the UK.
“This amount increases still each year,” he continues. “The internal market is saturated [for strawberries] so we’re having to look more at the export market and new markets or specialty varieties. You always have to be one step ahead. There is always a level of saturation for a product in any market. People in Belgium won’t eat more strawberries, it’s a stable market now.”
At the moment, Demaeght reveals that BelOrta’s exporters are working on the three major market avenues in the UK – retail, wholesale, foodservice. “We still see opportunities for the future, mainly for Elegance and our everbearing variety Portola,” he notes.
Nonetheless, Belgian growers are well attuned to market trends, and having noticed that domestic strawberry production is expanding in the UK they anticipate that, in time, British strawberries will take over the market, driven by consumer desire for locally-grown products. With that in mind, the trade is eyeing possibilities for future growth with other popular berry types, such as blueberries.
“Our growers are asking us what their future is if more people are growing strawberries in the UK,” says REO’s Premereur. “We tell them there are lots of possibilities with berries in general because they are very popular. I think [berry] consumption can increase a lot. It’s one of the produce categories where demand is still higher than supply.
“In Belgium, for example, only one in three households are buying raspberries, so there’s lot of room to grow. We are doing some scientific research to see if we can guide lettuce producers into growing more soft fruit.”
Demaeght at BelOrta adds that Belgium could be well-placed to supply a wide range of berries to the UK. “On the soft fruit side, we see good opportunities for blackberries and raspberries,” he explains. “Blueberries not so much – the volume is staying in Belgium where there is less availability currently. We also have nice cherries, gooseberries and redcurrants that are available but at this moment they don’t go to the UK.
“Our blackberries and raspberries are already present in the UK and we’d like to increase the volumes sent there through our exporters. In time, we’d also like to introduce other berries like gooseberries and our cherries to the UK market.”
Belgium’s close proximity to the UK could add another string to its bow. “A lot of blueberries are shipped into Europe and the UK from the Southern Hemisphere yet there’s a growing demand for local fruit because of the food miles associated with imports,” notes Premereur.
Van der Sypt adds that currently the UK imports a lot of blueberries because there is little domestic production. “Imports also come from Poland and Belgium/Holland, so for blueberries there are still growth possibilities,” she says.
Satisfying demand at home and abroad
But while admitting that opportunities in the UK are interesting, Premereur is quick to point out that Belgian demand will have to be addressed as a priority before suppliers can really consider growing external markets.
“There certainly are some possibilities for other Belgian-grown berries [in the UK], but first our volumes need to expand to cover the demand of the Belgian retail market before we can go into exports,” Premereur says.
To strengthen its berry supply and availability therefore, Demaeght at BelOrta points out that Belgian producers are planting more soft fruit, especially varieties that can offer early and late availability (from greenhouses).
“For 2016 compared to 2015, we [at BelOrta] are seeing a growth of 20% and more in the surface area planted with blackberries and raspberries,” he says. “There has been a huge increase in BelOrta’s raspberry offer. Last year our growers produced 1m kilogrammes of raspberries, and this year there will be a 21% increase in planted area. We also expect a 23% increase in blackberry production this year.”
Strawberries are currently the number-two product for BelOrta after pears and ahead of apples. Some 70% of its strawberry volume was exported last year, compared with just 35% of its raspberry and blackberry offer at present.