On Saturday December 1st, the SUFISA-team of KU Leuven was invited to present their case study results at the Fructura fruit farming fair in Hasselt, Belgium. Eewoud Lievens presented some case study results of interest for stakeholders, and professor Erik Mathijs (scientific coordinator of the SUFISA project) took part in the subsequent panel debate on the future of apple and pear farming in Flanders. Clearly, Belgian fruit farmers are concerned of the future of the sector, as about 90 people (mainly farmers) attended the panel debate.
Belgian apple and pear farmers often consider their sector to be “in a crisis”. The SUFISA case study confirms that some challenges are indeed putting a severe pressure on the sector’s sustainability: the oversupply of apples, the loss of the Russian export market, the high financial risks inherent to tree fruit farming, the continuing reduction of the crop protection products allowed, private quality standards, and increasing difficulty to find enough seasonal labourers at the time of harvesting.
Despite of the often negative perception of the sector’s sustainability, 55% of the SUFISA survey respondents intends to increase the firms’ revenue. 31% of the respondents aims to increase the acreage of his/her firm. When asked how they wish to achieve this revenue increase, the most common answer given was ‘by producing more pear’ (46%). The trend of specialisation in Conférence pear farming for export will thus likely continue for some more time. Other proposed strategies which were often confirmed are the development of new sales channels and product diversification. Insuring against input price volatility seems not to be a popular strategy. Insuring more against production loss is neither, but already 50% of the tree fruit farmers is partially or entirely insured against yield loss by hail.
An important theme in the debate on the future of apple and pear farming in Belgium is cooperation. 84% of the survey respondents is member of a producer organisation (PO), and therefore sells its produce collectively. While the governance and management of these PO’s are highly controversial, the research revealed that the large majority of farmers considers cooperation to be necessary to tackle the major challenges for the sector. Countering the oversupply of Jonagold apples, or countering the trend of specialisation in Conférence pears, require strong coordination at the sector level. In this context, it is important to notice that inter-branch organisations (IBO’s), a specific model promoted by EU policies to facilitate cooperation across supply chain stages, were never really adopted in Belgium.
Through subsequent mergers, the number of horticultural cooperatives marketing tree fruit in Flanders has reduced to two. Recently, two young and small cooperatives were created. Consequently, the large traditional cooperatives are faced with strong heterogeneity among the producers they represent. As member heterogeneity is a known problem for the organisation of cooperatives, the strong dissatisfaction observed with some of the members is not a surprise. It appears for example that 40% of PO members does not use the “extra” commercial services offered by their PO. This group is significantly less satisfied with the management of their PO.
In short, coordination and cooperation will be essential in finding solutions for a sustainable tree fruit farming sector in Belgium. It is clear that stakeholders perform not sufficiently well on both domains at the moment. By understanding better the heterogeneity in preferences and characteristics of tree fruit farmers, stakeholders might succeed better in the necessary cooperation and coordination.