How will a reduced European apple harvest impact on UK growers?

British top fruit growers concerned about the impact of this season's late frost can take some comfort from the situation on the Continent, where according to analysts, damage to tree fruit is at least as bad.

Image: Max Pixel (CC0 1.0)
Image: Max Pixel (CC0 1.0)

"Continuous market supply is at risk," according to Helwig Schwartau, horticulture market analyst at Germany’s Agrarmarkt Informations-Gesellschaft (Agricultural Market Information Company, AMI).

"Despite the hitherto vague statements, EU apple harvesting is likely to be below 10 million tonnes," he said, compared to an average of over 12m tonnes over the past three years.

Most of the Continent’s main apple growing areas have been affected to some extent. The frost which struck on the night of 19 April particularly hit apple growers in Belgium and the southern Netherlands, southern Germany and Italy’s South Tyrol region, while Europe’s biggest apple producer, Poland, was hit by frosts later the same month. Only France escaped largely unscathed.

"In many cases, even the 50% mark [of losses] is exceeded," said Schwartau.

Crop losses (%)

  • Belgium: 65-70%
  • The Netherlands: 30-35%
  • Italy: 20-25%
  • Poland: 50-60%

In Germany, crop losses of 70% are predicted for the Lake Constance region in the south, compared to just 10% in the lower Elbe in the north of the country. Austria is predicted to lose around half its crop.

"The figures are only tendencies; for exact harvesting prospects, it is much too early," he said, adding that final figures would be presented at the industry’s Prognosfruit congress, this year in Spain, in early August.

The last time Europe’s harvest was so badly hit was in 2007, when it disproportionately affected Eastern Europe. In the 2017/18 season, "availability is more balanced", Schwartau said. Among the effects of this news among traders, "the market for apples from the 2016 crop has certainly turned and includes attractive prices".

Dutch Fruit Growers Organization (NFO) director Siep de Koning said: "It is not a bumper harvest," and added that the NFO would have a clearer picture later this month. Many Dutch growers have insurance cover against hail damage, partly funded through the EU’s fruit & vegetable regime, but not frost damage.

Kent grower, Avalon Produce director and NFU Kent county chairman James Smith, said: "Any reduction in the volume of European fruit should have a positive effect on price, which could balance out our own smaller harvest this year."

Of his own situation, he said: "I expect to be 20-30% down on budget. We have orchards in the Low Weald that will only have 10-15% of a normal crop, but others will have a full crop. But we won’t know the full impact until harvest time, both in terms of quantity and share of class-1 fruit. Frost can damage the fruit’s skin – a ‘frost ring’ of russeting makes it unsaleable for fresh."

The situation is in marked contrast to that of three years ago, when the Russian ban on imports of European food and farming products led to an instant fruit surplus on the European market, prompting EU intervention payments of millions of euros across a range of crops.

Even before this however, the Low Countries’ apple production was in decline.

Producers said that the modernised Polish industry has increased the supply of apples on the Continent, while pears cannot be grown so far east.

"While the yield from pears is just above cost, apples are often loss-making," said Michiel Gerritsen, president, Dutch trade association NFO.

Twenty years ago, the Netherlands harvested three times as many apples as pears. But since 2012 the harvest of pears, mostly Conference, has exceeded that of apples, with 374,000 tonnes of pears last year contrasting with 317,000 of apples.

According to NFO figures, only 20% of Dutch apples are exported, while two-thirds of its pears are, with the UK and Germany accounting for around three-quarters of these sales. Dutch domestic consumption of apples is four times that of pears.

Belgian top fruit marketer Enzafruit’s managing director Tony Fissette suggested another reason for the switch. "Jonagold and Golden Delicious should’ve been replaced with other varieties years ago. Fruit growers are wondering: what should we then plant [instead], and to be honest, Jazz, Pink Lady, Envy or Gala can’t be produced in Belgium or the Netherlands because of the climate. That’s why producers have switched to other products, such as cherries and pears."

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