Top-fruit market in balance

Apple and pear production forecasts released today by the World Apple & Pear Association, at Prognosfruit in Kent, augur well for a balanced demand and supply in the UK market during the next few months.

Apple production in the 19 leading EU producing nations will increase by 14 per cent compared to last year, to 9.94 million tonnes. However, much of that increase is down to rises in eastern Europe, which will only have a small impact on the UK apple scene. Domestic production is forecast at two per cent lower than last season, while major senders to this country – France, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium – are all expected to register decreases on 2007-08.

The European pear crop will reduce year on year, by 14 per cent to 2.16mt. Following a successful last season, the home-grown Conference crop looks set to drop by a disappointing 15 per cent after hard-hitting frosts, back to the 2006-07 level of 21,000t. Across Europe, the Conference decline will be even greater, down by as much as 23 per cent to 637,000t.

Adrian Barlow, chief executive of English Apples & Pears, which is hosting this year’s Prognosfruit conference and 250 international delegates in the Garden of England, said with no southern hemisphere overhang, the desired market balance should be met. He warned, however, that both domestic and continental European growers need higher returns if the industry is to avoid major shortages in years to come.

“There has been an encouraging increase of between five and 10 per cent in retail prices since April,” Barlow told FPJ. “But I have carried out research into the costs of production for growers and there have been phenomenal increases in the last 12 months, which are set to continue. There has been a rise of between six and 15 per cent in the cost of the production process, including picking, grading and storage, as the price of energy, transport, fertilisers, labour, etc increase significantly.

“This is all outside growers’ control, but there is a grave danger that if these increases are not reflected in increasing returns to the grower and packer base, there will be an enforced retrenchment and a failure to invest – which will inevitably lead to shortages in future seasons. The consumer may not want to pay more for their fruit, but shortages are also against their interests,” he said.

Growers across Europe face the same challenges, Barlow added. “The strengthening of the euro against sterling means continental suppliers to the UK will be seeking even bigger increases than their English counterparts, simply to achieve the same returns as last year,” he said. “There is no obvious way of getting round this problem.”

Across English production areas, growers are still unsure where the volume of labour needed to pick their crop is going to come from. Restrictions on the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme and reports from the soft- and stone-fruit sectors are creating widespread uncertainty. “As the euro strengthens, jobs in the UK are not quite so precious as they used to be to eastern Europeans, and the reports coming through are that workers are not as enthusiastic about working at the pace they once were, as it becomes less beneficial to them,” Barlow said.

“There is no doubt that a lack of labour availability could impact adversely on the English season.”