Bio Südtirol: Taking organic apples beyond EU standards
Yields may be around 30% lower for organic apples compared to their conventional counterparts in northern Italy, but growers are increasingly turning to the category in a bid for better returns and a cleaner environmental footprint.
The cooperative is one of 16 that form part of the Vog Group, but an important distinction is it's the only organic one.
"For us it’s very important that we’re divided clearly to make it sure to our customers that we are not mixed," says commercial manager Werner Castiglioni.
"In total Vog produces 550,000 [metric] tons (MT) and we have 25,000MT, so you can imagine we are 4% in terms of quantity and 6-7% in terms of area.
"We are small but in the organic market we are big," he adds, clarifying while there is no hard data on total organic apple volumes grown in Europe, the group estimates it accounts for 10-15% of European Union volume in the category.
When other organic growers from South Tyrol are added into the equation, Castiglioni estimates the whole region accounts for 25-30% of EU organic apple volume.
"We have here in our cooperative 200 members, 200 family farmers with 700 hectares, which means one farmer on average has over three hectares.
"I have 200 directors, so you can imagine it’s not so easy – we work for the farmer. Everything we earn minus the service we provide goes directly to the farmer."
Wide range, strict packaging
He says around 90% of the apples produced are destined for export, with around half the fruit going to the northern markets of England, Ireland and Scandinavia.
Bio Südtirol can make recommendations to growers about varieties based on production and market trends, but it is ultimately the decision of its members to choose what they grow - the result is some 35 varieties available across its portfolio.
Gala is dominant with around a third of production, followed by Braeburn, the club varieties like Evelina and Cripps Pink (marketed as Pink Lady if quality standards are met), and then Fuji, Topaz and Red Delicious.
"Every variety has its own characteristics and storage and in production, but it’s also nice on the other hand to have all tastes and different varieties for all countries and customers," says Castiglioni.
He adds there has also been a rise in the production of new scab-resistant varieties; a significant development given growers cannot use conventional sprays to treat the problem.
"Other scab resistant varieties we have are Gold Rush, and we search for scab resistant varieties. We know resistant does not mean everything – like in Germany we see the first problems where scab has broken the genetic resistance. So we can reduce the treatment with sprays but it doesn’t mean doing nothing."
When asked about brands, Castiglioni says the apples are sold either under the name Bio Südtirol or the club varieties represented, but on the other hand 95% of the fruit ends up in supermarkets where many outlets opt for private labeling.
"The supermarkets have invested a lot in the last years in promotions, marketing for organic to have a good image for themselves, and now the situation is that a lot of the organic apples go in their own brand.
"We are specialized for the discounts and normal mixed supermarkets, and we do every year less discounts. If we have good quality, we can pack the trays."
This last point is a reference to the varied regulations around the presentation of organic apples in different supermarkets and countries around Europe. Castiglioni highlights it's not allowed to sell layered or loose apples as organic in some countries because of concerns they will mix with conventional produce and the consumer won't truly know what they're buying.
"In some countries they accept every apple to have a sticker, but countries like Italy, Poland and a lot of other countries don’t accept this," he says.
"So we must do a tray, and there are not so many cooperatives that can do so many apples in trays in organic because most are loose."
While the cooperative is dealing with volumes unheard of in other parts of Europe for organics, the reality is the group is still dealing with small family farms covering wide distances. This means it simply isn't economically viable for a grower to bring a tractor of six cartons to the central Merano facility for storage.
The solution is a series of smaller storage areas throughout the region, with well-organized logistics bringing cartons from different areas to Merano for pre-sizing when capacity permits. Growers are charged the same rates for storage irrespective of variety, and the representative emphasizes more pickings take place in order to avoid potential quality issues during storage.
He adds that because the fruit is organic, SmartFresh cannot be used during storage to block ripening, therefore requiring alternative methods for retaining shelf life. As a result, in Gala for example the apples can be sold until March or April instead of July.
Going beyond EU standards
For some farmers it is enough to meet the organic standards of the European Union for certification, but for Bio Südtirol there are several aspects of the regulations that don't make the cut.
"For us we made the decision it’s not enough to produce to the regulations of the European Union," says Castiglioni.
"All of our members must be associated to other associations, like Naturland, Demeter, like Bioland; most of our members, more than 90%, are with Bioland.
"Bioland is an organic association that comes from Germany that is much more stronger than the European union regulations. For example the European Union regulations say it’s okay to have mixed farms – one part conventional, one part organic.
But for these stricter associations, and the cooperative itself, the answer is "no, it can't be" when it comes to mixed farms.
"It must be all organic – it doesn’t matter if they have wine production or anything else - they must be 100% organic.
"Copper is always a point of discussion in organic – the European Union says 6kg per hectare is allowed – we use it on 3kg, but our average is below 2kg - it is 1.5kg but it depends on the year," he says, adding other certifications include Krav, Produto Organico Brasil, BioSuisse Organic, BRC, IFS and Garanzia AIAB.
But what happens when the neighbors want to produce conventionally?
"We are small areas, small orchards, but we have our own management with the neighbors and we ask a minimum distance when it’s possible," he says.
"But if that’s not possible we ask something in the middle...our organic farmer sprays and works the last two lines of the conventional orchard and then they pick it as conventional, but then the organic farmer is sure that their own is clean because the distance is bigger and there are two lines of apples in the middle.
The consequence is around 5% of the cooperative's apples end up going directly to conventional markets every year.
"We estimate our costs every year to be from €250,000-300,000 that we lose because we must bring it to conventional, to give the guarantee that our fruit is pesticide-free."
For photos from the Bio Tur, including the packhouse and Markus Ladurner's farm Huber-Hof, click here.