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Opal builds presence and promise in Europe, South Africa

With new Opal apple marketers and growers popping up around Europe and trials underway by South African produce giant DuToit, expectations are high that the Czech-origin variety – known scientifically as UEB 32642 -could reinvigorate the yellow category. As the second part of a series on Opal, at we speak with key proponents of this apple which has been met with rave reviews around the world.

“Even people who usually don’t buy Golden Delicious apples would buy an Opal-branded apple if they knew how it eats,” according to Michael Weber of Germany-based Fruit Select, which holds the European marketing rights.

Following the success of UEB 32642 grown by Broetje Orchards in the U.S. Northwest, 64 trial plantings were established in Europe in 2007.

The initial focus had been on the British, German and Austrian markets, with exclusive deals though Univeg UK and SanLucar, but Weber said Opal was now moving toward the traditional yellow apple countries of Spain, Italy and France.

“We’re taking a step-by step approach. Univeg has been selling commercial volumes for four years and SanLucar for two years, so that is phase one,” he said.

“In these countries there is a relatively low appreciation for yellow apples, and so it was there we started the Opal project to revitalize the category.

“We recently had meetings in Spain where the market was evaluated, and we now have two new partners there – Orchard Fruit and Nufri. This year we are on our way to sign agreements to get Italian companies involved.”

While the Mediterranean countries have generally been oriented toward yellow varieties, Weber has noticed a trend of marketers struggling with sales and looking to new bicolored apples like Envy, Jazz and Kanzi.

One reason for this could be yellow varieties’ tendency to lose their crunch in the heat, and Weber therefore hoped Opal’s characteristics could help to turn the tables.

“Our trial plots in Catalonia, Spain, and the Italian provinces of Piedmont, Trentino and South Tyrol show very promising results,” he said.

“One of the biggest innovations is that it holds the crunch even under the heat. From the Czech Republic you don’t know if an apple can stand the heat they have in places like Washington State, South Africa or Spain, but it’s so important.”

Weber added the variety’s high Brix levels of around 15-16 were counterbalanced with acidity, creating a ‘universal’ flavor.

“The U.K. and German consumers like it, but so do the Italians and the Spanish. So we’re relatively confident that it matches consumer expectations in different markets and cultures,” he said.

With production set to grow rapidly from the current 3,000 metric tons (MT), Weber believes the variety could one day take a chunk of the European Golden Delicious market.

“I personally believe that a share of 2-3% of the market is achievable,” he said, adding 1% of the Golden Delicious market stood for around 22,000MT.

“When will this be the case? We don’t know. Possibly between 2026 and 2030.”

Brand recognition growing in the U.K.

In the U.K., where the number of planted trees has shot up from 2000 seven years ago to 136,000 today, Univeg UK is working hard to boost consumer loyalty and extend the marketing window.

Hannah Surtees, head of category marketing and insight, highlighted that plantings had been established in various different counties, which is important in a country where consumers have a strong preference for local produce.

“It’s great that Opal can grow well in the U.K. with sustainable returns for growers to make it viable in the future,” she said.

“For me it’s a brand and a product that’s fantastically exciting. Over the last few years while I’ve been involved with it we have done very consumer-focused marketing activities and the customers are absolutely wowed by it.”

Surtees said it had been a challenge launching a new apple variety in the U.K. market, which nowadays offers huge choice but is dominated by a select few.

“The market’s become increasingly busy with a huge range for shoppers, which brings both positives and negatives,” she said.

“The positives are it’s really exciting for consumers if they can see that range of choice and that there’s definitely an apple out there for everybody, but then on the reverse of that there’s a continued challenge for space.

“Around 70% of sales still go through five core varieties – Royal Gala, Pink Lady, Braeburn, Granny Smith and Golden Delicious – and then you have a large tail of new products, which are very exciting and offer consumers great choice.”

She added while consumer insight groups had pointed out many shoppers have preconceived negative ideas about yellow apples, when given Opal to try this ‘completely switched’.

“It’s a consumer paradox, yes it’s yellow on the outside, but it’s everything you want and more on the inside,” she said.

Univeg UK has brought Opal to various food festivals around the country over the years, including the BBC Good Food Show, and has been ramping up its social media presence to build brand awareness and loyalty.

Surtees is now hoping to extend the marketing season as much as possible, both through controlled atmosphere storage and greater availability.

“For the next few years it’s about building better recognition for what a great eating apple it is and that outstanding flavor, which drives repeat purchases back to the product to continue growing sales,” she said.

Dutoit prepares for first commercial volumes

One of the major counterseasonal suppliers to the U.K. in the future is likely to be South Africa, where produce company Dutoit is one of several that has been trialling production for a few years.

The leading fruit packer and exporter has various Opal orchards in four areas around the Western Cape, and was able to evaluate the first fruit in 2013.

“A semi-commercial trial of 1150 trees was made in the Koue Bokkeveld in 2012. This was a calculated risk based on information gathered first hand from visits to Broetje in the USA and various growers in France and Germany,” produce development manager Tanith Freeman said.

“The past two seasons we have been able to harvest a good sample for packing and storage trials.”

Freeman said the variety seemed to grow well in a wide range of micro-climates in the Western and Eastern Cape.  Sites to avoid are ones where Golden Delicious generally does not do well and where there is a historic high incidence of russet

The first small commercial volumes are expected next year, and while Dutoit is free to export to whichever company it chooses, Freeman said Univeg UK and SanLucar would be the natural choices to begin with.

“Considering the amount of marketing done in the UK by Univeg and SanLucar in Germany, I do believe these two companies would our first port of call,” she said.

“This year branded samples were sent to selected African markets. Their acceptance remains to be seen as Africa prefers a green Golden.

“It will be a huge challenge to position Opal as a different tasting experience against a perception of overripe Goldens.”

Representatives of TopFruit, which manages UEB 32642 in South Africa, emphasized the variety was in its very early stages in the country, but they believed it had strong potential.

“There are 33,500 trees currently in the ground, of which the bulk is planted with Dutoit, however not all trees are bearing as most were only planted in 2014 and 2015,” Pome fruit operations manager Corné Grundlingh said.

“Therefore we had small volumes this season, of which a few trial cartons were sent to Africa to test the consumers’ response, and some were introduced into the South African domestic market.”

While Europe is a key market for South African apple exports, research and trials will be carried out in a range of markets around the world in due course.

There are currently six South African companies trialing Opal orchards, but Top Fruits is looking to grow this number.

“We’d love to expand, we think it’s a great variety,” said pome fruit manager Peter Allderman.

He highlighted that feedback for the variety so far had been ‘extremely positive’, adding it was a relatively easy variety to grow.

“It has many grower-friendly characteristics. Most importantly it’s scab resistant and it’s also fairly resistant to powdery mildew, but also it’s very productive,” he said.

As for the prospects of Opal in South Africa, Allderman was hopeful for a bright future.

“At a time when we are facing declining per-capita consumption of apples, this is the kind of apple that could reverse that trend,” he said.

“We’d like to see it do very well. It’s a new category. Pink Lady was fantastic in that it introduced the pink category, and the Opal is not just a yellow apple – we’d like to see it start the gold category.

“It’s very early days, but hopefully consumers will like it and that taste and flavor is what will bring them back to it.”

Related stories: “Geometric growth” ahead for Opal apples

“Varieties are created by nature,” said Opal apple breeder

Early stonefruit season hampers South African imports

Early stonefruit season hampers South African imports

The early start to this year’s stonefruit harvest in South Africa made for a lighter crop and smaller sizes this year. But shippers expect volumes will pick up going into 2015.

Harvesting of stone fruit in South Africa got off to a very early start this year, with picking getting underway as much as 3 weeks earlier than normal. The quick start to the season resulted in smaller sizes, so growers had trouble filling out boxes. Apricots, in particular, were not as plentiful as expected, so early estimates as to how much fruit would be picked and shipped were not met.

Plums and peaches
Plum volumes were also off, with fruit sets not going well in some areas. As with apricots, smaller sizes made it harder to fill out boxes and meet early volume estimates. Peaches recovered from early deficiencies in the season and peak volumes are currently coming out of South Africa. Sizing on peaches has also been good.

Nectarines have also fared well in terms of sizes, but variability in maturity and sugar content made it a challenge to choose the right fruit for export early in the season. In general, the nectarine crop is looking very promising, according to one South African exporter.

Quality of stonefruit
Despite challenges with sizing and volumes, quality of fruit has been good. Good weather throughout the growing season resulted in high sugar levels in most fruit. Good sugar content helps fruit store well, so shelf life should be good. While the early part of the stone fruit season was characterized by a shortage of fruit, the last week has brought increased volumes, and exporters hope those volumes will continue going into January.

A early shortage of fruit resulted in higher prices, but those prices are starting to come down now that volumes are filling out. One exporter was concerned with how quickly prices rose earlier in the year because the subsequent drop might also come very quickly. Pricing trends have been similar to those from the 2011 season, but returns have been better because of a more favorable exchange rate. Prices in the United Kingdom, in particular, have been good when compared to the rest of Europe. Sales in Europe this time of year are usually pretty sluggish, but shippers expect demand to pick up in January.

Flat varieties
A stone fruit variety that has drawn a lot of interest in Europe has been the flat peach. While the uptick in attention to the variety has made South African exporters take note, South African growers cannot plant the variety commercially for at least another three years because of quarantine regulations. But if interest in flat stone fruit persists, growers will likely plant and export the fruit to Europe in the future.

Middle and Far East
Volumes of stone fruit in the Middle East and Far East have been very good this year, but prices there have been under pressure and are currently trending downward. While South African exporters don’t ship most of their fruit to those markets, those areas remain important, so exporters are watching those markets closely.

Publication date: 12/24/2014
Author: Sander Bruins Slot

South Africa: First apples to China in January

South Africa: First apples to China in January

Last week Hortgro announced that South African apples would gain entry to the Chinese market, the authorities on both sides are just finalising the list of certified producers and packhouses and carrying out inspections.

Any grower in South Africa is free to send apples to China as long as they have registered and have the correct certifications.

Jacques du Preez from Hortgro said, all going well, the first shipments will start in January 2015, in line with the export season for South African apples, “As with any new market, we will most likely start off slowly and build up the volumes.” 

The varieties being shipped will most likely be Royal Gala, Fuji and Granny Smiths. Du Preez said that China would not be an easy market as they already produce huge volumes of apples domestically.

He hopes that now that everything is in place China will soon be open to pears as well, “Most of the growers who are already registered for apples also produce pears.”

As for volumes, South Africa should see a normal production this year after an off year last season. “We will most likely send a bit less to Europe due to the abundance on the market already because of high European production and the Russian ban, but the volumes to the UK should be back to normal after being down last season due to Chile’s abundance of small fruit.”

“Africa is also a growing market so we will send more there too.” Russia is also open to South African exporters but Du Preez does not expect exports there to significantly increase.

For more information:
Jacques du Preez
Eamil: [email protected]
Tel: +27 82 864 8149

Publication date: 12/9/2014
Author: Nichola Watson

South Texas continues to expand as produce entry point

In 2013, about 170,000 truckloads of fruits and vegetables from Mexico came into the United through the ports of entry in South Texas, making it the leading state in the country for imports of fresh produce.

“About 40-45 percent of the fresh produce consumed in the United States is imported,” said Bret Erickson, president and chief executive officer of the Texas International Produce Association, based in Mission, TX. “More than 50 percent of those imports come through Texas.”

The crossing bridge at Pharr in the Rio Grande Valley is the busiest port of entry, with about 100,000 of those truckloads in 2013. Laredo, Progreso and Rio Grande City make up the vast majority of the other 70,000 loads. Erickson said the number of trucks crossing in Texas is increasing every year.  

Texas, in fact, is expecting an even greater percentage of produce imports from Mexico in the near future, now that the Mexican “super highway” connecting the Pacific Ocean near Mazatlan with the Gulf of Mexico near Brownsville is almost complete.

Some have estimated that annually an additional 500,000 truckloads of goods (not just produce) will rumble through Texas into the United States because of the ease of driving across that country through the mountains and into the Lone Star State.

Erickson said the significant increase in produce imports over the last couple of decades is the chief reason the Texas Produce Association added the word “international” to its moniker.  

“It reflects the growth and direction of our membership and recognizes the importance of imports to Texas,” he said.

The TIPA is recognizing how south Texas agriculture has changed with its new produce convention that will be held in San Antonio this spring. Like the ongoing trend in produce shows, it will be a regional show but with a huge international flavor. Erickson expects about half of the exhibitors to be Mexican companies that sell their produce into the United States and ship through Texas.

Of course, the Texas International Produce Association has its roots in the Rio Grande Valley and it still has its two boots planted in Texas soil. In mid-November, Erickson said the U.S. Department of Agriculture was counting the recent ballots concerning a continuation referendum on the south Texas onion deal. The TIPA executive said it was a regularly scheduled vote and there appeared to be no extra politicking for or against the measure.

Earlier this year, a previous referendum was voided because of the use of an outdated mailing list. In the past, the federal marketing order has been approved by growers, but Erickson said his concern is simply that it be a fair vote that truly represents the wishes of the industry. The results are expected to be announced in early December.

Erickson also offered kudos to Texas Rep. Mike Conaway, who was picked by the Republican leadership to be chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture the day before. Erickson said Conaway is a friend of the ag industry and has visited with TIPA and its leadership three times in the previous 18 months.

“We are very fortunate to have him in that role,” he said.  “He is familiar with grower issues in Texas including the water situation, citrus greening and the important role imports play in our economy.”

When Conaway was at TIPA, Erickson said comprehensive immigration reform was discussed. After years of working for a solution in Congress and having the optimism for action dashed, Erickson said his membership is now just looking for anything that can help it stabilize its workforce.  

“I know of actual examples of growers who have had hundreds of thousands of dollars of crops rot in the field because they couldn’t get them harvested,” said Erickson.

He added that Rep. Conaway appears open to helping to find a solution for agriculture.

With regard to current crops, Erickson said Texas citrus shipments were well ahead of last year’s pace, though some recent rain did slow the harvesting down a bit.

“Right now the citrus season is rockin’ and rollin’,” he said. “Overall the crop looks very good — very comparable to last year.”

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