Turkish cherry industry confident of strong future in Europe despite rising competition

July 10 , 2019

This article originally in the Special Edition magazine accompanying the Global Cherry Summit 2019

Rising cherry production in the European Union is creating stiffer competition for outside suppliers, but Turkey, the world’s largest producer of the fruit, is confident that it has what is needed for a strong future in its main export market.

Turkey exports cherries to numerous markets, including Russia, Asia and the Middle East, with the EU being its leading destination. However, production levels from many EU countries have been on the upswing over recent years, not only from the leading producers Italy, Greece and Spain, but also the likes of Germany and the U.K., key markets for Turkey.

With retailers’ and consumers’ preferences toward local fruit, this situation has created challenges for Turkey.

But Hamdi Taner of Alanar, one of Turkey’s largest cherry grower-exporters, says that the country has a major advantage - a wide geographic distribution of cherry growing areas that allow for a longer season than in EU countries. This means it can supply the market at times when domestic European supplies are very low or non-existent.

Very early varieties start in April in the earliest regions and export quality cherries - the Ziraat 900 variety starts in mid-May and runs until mid-August in the latest regions,” he said. “Production in European countries is increasing, but they only have cherries for certain periods.

 “This is a big advantage for Turkey. We can be a more sustainable supplier compared to the European countries because their seasons are much shorter than the Turkish season. We can also compete with high quality, and our prices are more reasonable than European cherries’.”

Cherry trees are planted in a wide range of regions at different altitudes – up to around 2,000 meters - yet Turkey's long season is achieved with one variety alone: the Ziraat 900, which is predominant in the country.

According to Jaime Sánchez, product manager at SanLucar, one Europe’s biggest fruit distributors, the Ziraat 900 has become hugely popular with many European consumers, especially in Germany, where SanLucar has a particularly strong presence.

“It’s a traditional variety but with amazing organoleptic characteristics. Consumers love it, it has high sugar levels, good sizes, long green stems and a dark color,” he said. 

But Taner said that Alanar has been introducing other varieties to its cherry mix, most notably Regina, which he explained is typically harvested around a week later than Ziraat 900. This is part of the company’s strategy to increase volumes on the shoulders of the season, when global cherry supplies are low and prices are higher.

Turkey produces over 400,000 metric tons (MT) of cherries annually, according to Taner. The proportion of fruit exported is relatively small, but the figure has been growing, rising from around 60,000MT in 2017 to 75,000MT in 2018, with at least half typically going to the European market.

According to Taner, a much larger amount of production than what is currently exported meets export standards, and so the export level will continue to grow in the future, depending on demand and market opportunities.

“Overall I can say that there is a huge potential for Turkish cherries in the European market,” he says. 

European market becoming more challenging

Sánchez explained that although there would undoubtedly remain a space for Turkish cherries in the EU amid strong demand growth – which he estimated to be around 10-15% per year - the market was gradually becoming a more challenging place for cherry companies to do business.

In tandem with the rising supplies from both domestic and international origins – as well as the extending seasons in Europe over recent years due to warmer summers – he said that the demand of high-quality standards is growing strongly.

“The cherry market is becoming more professionalized,” he said. “The competition is stronger every year, and everyone – the consumers and the supermarkets – are demanding better quality fruits all the time. This means that the cherry companies that don’t meet the standards in terms of quality and food safety are not able to export to Europe.”

Meanwhile, the push-back on plastics is having significant implications for the cherry industry, he added, amid rapidly growing awareness of the environmental consequences of its use. 

As a result, he said that SanLucar was focusing heavily on developing new plastic-free formats. “Packaging is necessary in our industry to protect such a delicate product as fruits, but any initiative aimed at preserving better nature is always welcome,” he concluded.

Alanar looking to the Far East

While Europe is and will likely remain Turkey’s leading cherry market due to its size and proximity, Hamdi said that rising volumes are being shipped to the Far Eastern market. Alanar’s main markets in the region include Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia, where Hamdi said Turkey was able to compete well with the U.S.

“At Alanar we started exporting Turkish cherries to the Far East in 2012-13 with small quantities. These markets were mainly supplied by U.S. cherries from California and Washington during the summer season, but year-by-year supermarkets, wholesalers and importers gave us a bigger proportion of their cherry programs because they like our quality and our prices are reasonable,” he said.

In addition, China looks set to be supplied by larger volumes of Turkish cherries in the future. Hamdi said the market opened up for Turkish cherries in the 2017 season, but under the requirement that the fruit be subject to cold treatment. Last year, however, China approved a fumigation protocol, which Hamdi said is preferable.

“Cold treatment is not easy to apply, because you have to keep cherries at between 0 – 1ºC for 16 days before exporting them – so 16 days plus two or three days of transport by plane. We prefer fumigation as it means we can export the cherries immediately,” he said.

“The protocol of direct cherry export from Turkey to China with cold treatment method was settled in 2016, so in our first season in 2017 we shipped some small volumes, but with this new fumigation method our objective is to achieve more than 1,000MT in the next three or four years.”

He also expects export growth to other Asian markets like Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam

“I hope and believe that we as exporters do the right thing on service and production so we can increase volumes to all markets,” he said. “In agriculture when you invest in a project, you see results in the next three, five, 10 years, and we have been investing and creating projections since the early 2000s, so we believe that we will see the result of all this in the long-term.”

This article was originally published in our Special Edition magazine to accompany the Global Cherry Summit 2019.

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