European association to unite co-ops for better farmer returns

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European association to unite co-ops for better farmer returns

Eight grower groups in France and Belgium have joined forces to form the first pan-European Association of Producer Organisations (EAPO), with a total annual production of 1.3 million metric tons (MT) of fresh fruit and vegetables. Project coordinator Alain Schlesser expects 30-50 major European co-operatives will be incorporated in the coming year, with Spanish and Swedish groups likely the next to join. He tells more about this business model designed to bring greater efficiency to the market and improve farmer prices.

Schlesser expects the formation of an EAPO will help expand a model that has been successful for growers in his native Brittany since the 1960s, forging grower coordination, operational programs and transparent auctioning systems on an international scale.

"The producer organisation (PO) in Brittany was set up in the 60s with origins of very few buyers and many sellers; something like more than 5,000 growers and only less than 50 buyers, and this is why they set up the auctioning system," he says

"Today we believe we have the same situation with something like 5,000 POs in Europe, and we only have 10-20 big supermarkets buying their produce.

The EAPO is entitled to up co-financing from the European Commission for up to 4.1% of the value of total products sold, as part of the Common Market Organisation (CMO) that aims to promote cooperative activity.

The group has branded itself with the name FRESHCOOP, standing for the Fresh Cooperation of POs, and is based in the Belgian city of Leuven.

"We have been looking for different producer organisations throughout Europe for one year to convince them to organize progressively on a European scale so we can have a counterpart from the supermarket organizations," Schlesser says.

"I’ve been to Belgium and the Netherlands of course, the south of Spain in the Almeria area, the north of Italy, around the Bologna area, and other countries like the U.K., Sweden and Portugal.

"The first thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of our contacts were made through auctioning systems, and those systems have a very close vision of the world and how to work together to do things for our farmers; there's full transparency in the price and the connections are good."

He says Swedish and Spanish POs will likely join in early 2013.

"Some have said that auctioning systems are not up-to-date anymore but I disagree completely with this vision. We believe, and this is what I’ve seen in visiting these auctions, that there's still a very good system and a very effective way to get the best price for the farmers.

While auctioning POs will probably be the first to join, Schlesser's other objective is to get direct selling cooperatives to also join.

"On this topic we have to be very clear on how we collect the information on the market, because we don’t want to be persecuted by the competition authorities in Brussels.

"That’s the reason why we’ve decided to get in contact with those persons, to exchange data, but on the only structure which allows us to do things together, to create a cooperative and be recognized in the European legislation as an APO (Association of Producer Organisations).

"When you are recognized as an APO, you have to do things together. It’s a way to give security to our connections."

Preventing crises

Schlesser, who represents Brittany's Prince de Bretagne (Brittany Prince), says the EAPO will also add operational value.

"We believe that farmers can organize themselves to prevent and manage a crisis - we don't believe it is the role of the public state or the government," he says.

"We have been doing this with cauliflowers now for nearly 25 years. It means that we are freezing cauliflower when we have too much, destroying product when there is too much. We prevent overproduction of artichokes, things like that.

"We were sure that last year with the E.coli crisis, if we had made a collective fund saying that if there is a crisis all of our members will withdraw 5,000MT of tomatoes, we would have cleaned the market in weeks and the price would have been better all the rest of the year.


The POs from Brittany include 2,700 growers who produce 700,000MT of mainly vegetables and fruits each year, with more than 25 different products including cauliflowers, artichokes, shallots, tomatoes, broccoli, mushrooms and strawberries.

Their counterparts in Belgium, known under the name Flandria, include 4,200 growers who produce 610,000MT worth of produce each year. Schlesser says they grow around 55 different kinds of vegetables and fruits, including tomatoes, leek, chicory, strawberries and salads.

Prince de Bretagne and Flandria have a combined annual revenue of €935 million (US$1.23 billion).

Schlesser highlights that Brittany is unique with biennial cauliflower harvesting, with the main crop in December through to February when many other growing areas in Europe are frozen. He says the season is going as normal and there has been a very good tomato season this year.

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