The 2022 Spanish cherry season is already starting in the earliest regions. The area remained more or less stable, exceeding 28,000 hectares, with an annual production of more than 100,000 tons last year. The varietal conversion of recent years, together with investments in technology and greater know-how, have added value to a product considered top of the range in the fruit market. One of the motivating factors has been growing competition, given the proliferation of production in many other countries in a sector that is not without its challenges. Monica Tierno, Managing Director of Agrupación de Cooperativas del Jerte, and Hector Ripoll, partner of producer and distributor Cerima Cherries, both members of the National Cherry Board, analyzed the current situation of the Spanish cherry sector.
“The cherry acreage in Spain is mainly concentrated in the most important production areas. In the Jerte Valley, in Extremadura, the area devoted to cultivation remains rather stable, while in other production areas, such as the Ebro Valley, in Lleida or Aragon, it has tended to grow slightly these last years. In other regions, such as Albacete, the growth is much slower, and the same can be said of Alicante, a region that has been very badly affected by bad weather in recent seasons”, says Héctor Ripoll, partner producer of Cerima Cherries.
The cherry is a highly seasonal product and as such its production is limited to a few months in each production area. The varietal renewal underway in recent years makes it possible to start earlier and finish later with products better suited to consumer needs. “In the oldest areas, such as the Ebro Valley, Lleida or the Jerte Valley, the objective is to promote earliness, while in later areas the objective is to extend the campaign as much as possible, avoiding the month of June, in which more fruits of different origins are available, both in Spain and in other countries, such as Turkey, Greece, Italy and other countries of Central Europe where the fruit is shipped, such as Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom or France,” says Hector Ripoll.
According to the winegrower, if in the past the main objective in the search for earliness was to arrive as soon as possible with the idea of obtaining good prices, it is the consumers themselves who, through their behavior of purchase, have driven the development of taste quality.
“In the past, extra-early fruits were often found to have little flavor and color and too soft a texture and cause post-harvest problems. This led to a drop in sales and, consequently, the starting prices of the extra-early varieties. suffered in previous seasons. Today, there are hardly any early varieties planted that do not deliver the flavor and quality, so the situation is gradually being reversed. Fortunately, we have many more breeding programs today than 20 years ago. We found interesting breeders in the United States, France, Chile, Germany and other countries.”
“More traditional varieties are being replaced by more modern varieties that offer greater productivity, larger sizes and better flavor and hardness, which the market demands,” says Mónica Tierno, general manager of the Agrupación de Cooperativas del Valle del Jerte.
“We are looking for fruit that can be shipped as soon as possible, although the fact that we have growing areas between 400 and 1200 meters allows us to extend the season considerably, starting from mid to late April and ending at the end of July. . . The beginning of the season is particularly interesting for us in order to position ourselves, it is a period when consumers are already looking for something new after many months of winter products, and the cherry is one of the most expected. we believe that there is still room for our cherries in July, because despite the supply of local productions in Central Europe, many consumers, with the exception of the French, continue to appreciate the quality of Spanish cherries, so there is still room on their shelves,” says Monica.
To be the first Mediterranean country to reach the markets and stand out in terms of quality
Spanish cherries have gained a lot of value in terms of quality thanks to varietal renewal and production and sorting processes, although they have also gained competitors in other countries, where production has increased and falling prices costs allows them to offer aggressive pricing. Such is the case of Turkey.
“It is true that Turkey does not have the same level of technology as us, and its products are of inferior quality, but by having such a cheap labor force, it can offer very competitive prices, which is attractive for many markets,” says Héctor Ripoll. . “The pressure from Turkey and Greece in June is really important; however, Spain is a Mediterranean country, as Mediterranean as Turkey, Greece or Italy, but due to the particularities of our microclimates, we are the first to reach the markets of the northern hemisphere, and this is one of our strengths. Along with quality, this is our advantage in positioning ourselves. Distance and logistics also give us an advantage in the markets. European compared to our Mediterranean competitors.
“With regard to the 2022 season, there are concerns about the influence that Turkish production could exert on international markets following the conflict between Russia and Ukraine,” says Mónica Tierno. “We haven’t exported to Russia since 2014 because of the veto, but Turkey, which had no restrictions in Russia, could choose to divert its fruits to other markets, mainly in Europe, to avoid being affected by war and other difficulties.
“We must not forget to focus on places where the economy and the birth rate are growing”
Both entities send most of their shipments to European markets, as well as to more distant countries in Asia, the Middle East or South Africa. Monica and Hector agree that there are still many protocols to open for Spanish cherries, especially for the coveted Chinese market.
“We know that cherries are a very popular product in China, but the negotiation of the export protocol has been stalled for more than 5 years, and since the Chinese market was opened for table grapes, there has been no reopened for no other product,” said Monica Tierno. “The Covid-19 health crisis has not made things any easier over the past two years, as we have seen with Chile. We maintain our interest in this market, but we are also looking towards other areas, such as the Persian Gulf countries, even if the risks are too high at the moment, with the increase in the cost of air freight. We have potential customers overseas, but we are waiting to see how the global situation develops. When we hit peak times at the end of May, there could be more stability.”
The director general of the Agrupación de Cooperativas del Valle del Jerte also warns that Europe is an area in economic recession and a relatively old population. “We must not forget to concentrate where the economy and the birth rate are increasing. That is why we are also considering shipping long distances. If Chile can do it, so can we.”
Besides Europe and overseas, Cerima also wants to focus more on the domestic market. “We tend to think that the best products are always exported, but the Spanish retail trade is as demanding as any German or English supermarket. If the end consumer finds good products, they quickly get used to them and we If we also present it in attractive packaging and in bags that extend the shelf life of the product, as we do for long distances, this will also be appreciated and remunerated Any improvement in the value of the product is appreciated by the consumer.
“The supply has increased, forcing all producers to step up our game”
The two production areas, the Jerte Valley and the Ebro Valley, began their campaigns in mid-April this year, as the trees had enough cold hours in winter and good flowering.
Input costs have skyrocketed, including fertilizer, fuel, energy and packaging materials. “For now, producers and traders are taking care of it, and we hope that the big retailers will also take their part and that this will affect the selling prices. In the meantime, consumers are already suffering,” says Monica Third. “If the fruit arrives on the shelves with high quality standards, we can set higher prices. Otherwise, it will be very difficult to do so,” says Héctor Ripoll.
The cherry already has added value in itself and has become much more competitive in recent years, especially as the areas devoted to cultivation have expanded into areas where it grew very little, if at all. . “The offer has increased and this has forced us to become more demanding and to make greater economic efforts in the form of investments. All of us producers have had to step up our game. Despite the fact that there is great productive potential in the Mediterranean, the weather events of recent years have had a negative impact in different countries, which has somehow regulated the ‘offer. At the moment, the product continues to be profitable for the entire value chain,” says Mónica Tierno.
“We are very satisfied with the results that this fruit gives, despite the challenges it poses, starting with the shortage of labor, which leads to investing in the automation of the selection, grading and packaging processes. says Héctor Ripoll. “At the moment, harvesting the cherries cannot be mechanized due to the fragility of the fruit and it takes ‘many hands’ in a short time, due to the large amount of fruit arriving at the same time.
“Another issue, perhaps even more worrying, is that of climate change. It is a very weather-sensitive fruit, which can cause significant changes in its behavior, and rain, frost and hail have recently been recorded at times and in which it almost never happened before. If the year is good, without any climatic problem, the final customer’s score for the fruit improves exponentially. We are talking about a top species, a sought-after snack in the stone fruit segment, and we believe that consumption will continue to increase, as long as quality standards are maintained, with textured varieties turgidity and enough dry matter in their pulp for long post-harvest life, good Brix, good size, etc.