New shape, no wax: Italy's bet on U.S. pear market
While Apofruit began with stonefruit-focused cooperatives in Italy's Emilia-Romagna region in the 1950s, market pressures have led the company to transition more to durable fruits that can travel long distances, such as pears, apples and kiwifruit. During the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) Fresh Summit in Anaheim, the company's overseas export manager Renzo Balestri caught up with www.freshfruitportal.com to talk about crop trends in the Mediterranean country.
"In the past, most Italian exporters did not look at the U.S. as a strategic market, but just as another opportunity," Balestri said.
Now that has totally changed, he said, with the European market now "flatlined".
"The Middle East, the Far East, North America and South America, these economies are running and there are possibilities and space to send product and make deals," he said.
"In Europe, everything is full. There is no space to increase, to develop or to create something new, to establish new relations, new channels."
He pointed to Abate Fetel pears in the U.S. market as a prime example of the strategic opportunities, after the first shipments were sent last year.
"We shipped one or two containers of pears. In Europe, Abate Fetel pears are very popular, but outside of Europe most consumers don't recognize it; it's something we have to work on for promotion and marketing," he said.
"The shape of this pear is something totally different. I try to enter the mentality of the consumer who is used to other pears, who would see the Abate and ask, 'what is this? It's a monster of a pear'.
"The shape is very, it's very elongated - not straight-necked."
He said the main focus in the U.S. would be to focus attention on the U.S. East Coast where many consumers wee of Italian origin. Balestri also hoped the absence of wax on the fruit could be a drawcard.
"Apples here are 100% waxed. In Italy, if a consumer sees something is waxed they’ll think it's chemical or plastic, and it's impossible to find waxed fruit in Italy. Impossible," he said.
"Also in in Germany and most European countries, the wax on the fruit is admitted sometimes in oranges or other citrus, but in apples and pears nobody wants to see wax."
Another fruit coming into production in Italy is kiwifruit, with Apofruit accounting for around 10% of production.
"We believe kiwifruit is the item of the future where growers can still plant new orchards," he said.
"On the contrary, with stonefruit like peaches, nectarines, plums and apricots, the market is decreasing – a lot of growers are cutting their orchards because there are no more gains on these items.
"For kiwifruit, apples, or pears, whatever can be stored for a long time, there will be more chances for the future."
He said this was despite the challenges posed by kiwifruit vine disease Psa.
"Honestly I can say in the beginning there was a lot of panic but in the end it seems it’s something we can survive. The big thing was the gold kiwifruit, they've suffered a lot, but problems for the green kiwifruit are limited now.
"It’s a disease like any other, we have to pay attention to the trees. The important is the weather as strong rain can improve the development of the bacteria, whereas the dry season reduces the risk to zero."
He said there was rain in some growing regions in northern Italy during the summer, but that was not a threat to the vines.
"It's more dangerous at the beginning when there’s blooming," he said.
"This summer we had a lot of rain, and now the autumn is warm. The conditions seem okay – bad for peaches and nectarines, in fact we had one of the worst seasons seen in stonefruit."
He said Apofruit exported a portion of its own kiwifruit, and another part of its production via the Italian label 'Made in Blu', seeking to avoid overlap in destination markets.
Italian crop and grower trends
With more than 3,500 growers all over Italy, Apofruit's cooperative structure continues to give a certain level of certainty to member growers in a speculative market; some of whom also grow grapes and persimmons.
"The original persimmon, the ancient persimmon, was actually an Italian variety but it’s an old variety that is too soft, not suitable for export. Personally I prefer the soft variety over the new one," he said.
"But now there is a big amount of research in this variety, and this variety with the firm flesh has more opportunity in other markets.
"The taste is good. It's mostly grown in Emilia Romagna, and a little bit in the south."
He added that most of agriculture was moving from north to south, but certain growing requirements meant crops like pears remained concentrated in northern Italy.
"The grower-founders of the cooperatives in the north were small farmers and now they are getting older; most of the new generations don't continue in the job," he said.
"The northern growers are reducing; every year we have between 2-3% natural loss in growers. In the south there are still younger family enterprises, a big surface area and there is still possibility for growth," he said, adding high unemployment levels in the south also played a role.
He said southern Italian growers were coming to appreciate the cooperative structure, which traditionally had been the model of the north.
"In a cooperative you bring all the product, the growers are committed to bringing us everything, and we are committed to selling at the best price possible. The culture I think is the best – not for other economic sectors, but personally I think in agriculture it's the best system."
When asked about impacts from Russia's ban on European produce, he said Italians had tended to stay clear of the country but would now feel the flow-on effects from other growing nations.
"The direct effect on our turnover is nothing because in the last two or three years, the percentage of the product we exported to Russia was not passing 1% - it was very limited.
"It’s because Apofruit and most Italian exporting companies have a very strict policy in terms of credit insurance, and for Russia, most of the time it’s impossible to get this rating.
"The main issue is the effects from other countries – Poland was supplying Russia with a lot of apples and potatoes, Belgium with the pears, Holland with any item because they were in transit through the Dutch port, Greece as well."