In their efforts to attract high turnover supermarket chains as well as wholesalers, fresh fruit producers from the region struggle to improve the quality of current production and introduce new varieties that are in demand on the EU markets. Although many of the varieties of vastly grown fruits in the region like apples, table grapes, plums and some sour cherries are relatively obsolete, there are recent investments in modern intensive orchards and vineyards for table grapes with new assortment. New varieties require upgraded knowledge and adoption of latest techniques for sustainable production.
At the same time many of the F&V consolidators and traders in the region operate in underdeveloped cooling and storing facilities where they can do basic selection and packing and chill the products before distribution. However, there is lack of advanced buyout centers that can offer full range of adding value services like sorting, grading and packing products according highest supermarket standards as well as proper storage of fresh products for out of season consumption. Present cold storage operations often fail to apply all necessary steps from pre-cooling, cleaning and handling of produce that jeopardizes the freshness and quality of products, but also deliver products that are unsorted, of lower class, unsuitably packed and secured for transport and ultimately do not satisfy required criteria of buyers. Hence, buyers are experiencing waste and cannot achieve the preferred customer satisfaction.
Based on identified constrains, in the period from June 15th to June 19th, 2014 REG Project organized a Study tour to Italy to visit modern production of cherries and apples, buyout and distribution centers for fruit and vegetables and cooperatives/producer organizations. Twelve participants, all key agronomists, technologists, production/quality control managers from leading fresh fruit producing companies, exporters, traders and/or cold storage operators from REG countries: Albania, BiH, Kosovo, Macedonia and Serbia attended the study tour.
The Study Tour included intensive three days program starting with visiting Edmund Mach Foundation and buyout and distribution centre of the Producer Organization (PO) Valentina in San Michele All'Adige, Trento. Participants had a chance to see modern apple orchards and learn from many years of experience of experimenting in advanced apple production technology, various varieties, Integrated Pest Management treatments, visited centre on post-harvest technologies, education center and provision of consulting services for growers. Later the group participated at a presentation of Trentino Sviluppo, Department of Tourism and Promotion on promotion of typical products of Trento like apples and cherries through rural tourism.
The next day, the group visited Melinda, the largest apple consortium with 17 cooperatives and more than 3.700 producers joint in production and sales of apples. The companies learned on extraordinary structure and operations of the Consortium, cooperation with farmers and buyout of apples, extension service they provide to their members, cost structure and formation of buyout prices for different quality of apples and at the end witness tools for product promotion and marketing. The group visited facilities of Coop COCEA and observed complete flow of apples from buyout including techniques for coding according variety, production location, size, quality, then cleaning, sorting, grading operations, apple storage and packing. The group also visited orchards of a member of Coop COCEA - Mr. Loris Calliari and discussed apple production technology, trust and contractual relationship with the Coop.
Last day of the program started with visiting Apofruit Consortium, a cooperative Company with production operations throughout the country organized in 12 processing plants and 6 facilities for produce collection and storage. Participants were acquainted with special focus on Vignola cherry (Vignola Protected Geographic Indication - PGI cherry), application of production process control procedures, with integrated farming protocols and GLOBALGAP, BRC and IFS certifications, development of organic production, technical specialists for assistance to companies, work of their strategic and operative marketing unit. The group later visited advanced cherry orchard and discussed cherry production technology and visited the fruit market of Vignola, a Public-Private partnership managed by farmers through Coop management. They had a chance to better understand the concept for buyout and establishing prices by registered market traders. The Study Tour was enriched with a meeting and presentation by the international sales manager of Nespack, one of the world largest companies for packaging (plates, trays, foils for apples, peaches, cherries, tomatoes etc) for fruits and vegetables. At the end participants visited the orchard of a member of Apofruit cherry cooperative and learned on the special techniques for grafting cherry rootstock as well as direct benefits of membership.
The study tour exceeded the expectations of participants. The group consisted of people responsible for work related to improved production of fresh fruit and vegetables, post-harvest handling, compliance with food safety and quality standards had a chance to observe, ask questions and learn on rootstock, clones of fruit trees with higher resistance to pests, techniques for integrated pest management, most demanding varieties, growing, pruning, harvesting techniques for apples and cherries. Participants gained new knowledge on density of planting and growing, technology for achieving production of fruits with unified size and color, avoid sunburn, determine the proper ripening level before harvesting in order to secure desired freshness and shelve life of fruits etc.
Visits to modern buyout and distribution centers for fruit and vegetables helped companies (fresh fruit operators, larger buyout centers and exporters) to improve knowledge on organizing effective buyout, coding procedures for full traceability, post-harvest handling, techniques for sorting, grading of fruits, ULO and SMART technology for storing fruits for up to 8-9 months and selling them for a higher price.
Participants also learned how commercially viable consortiums, producer organisations/cooperatives that function as input supplier, consolidator, post-harvest operator, technology transfer center, often act as a guarantor for insurance etc… and directly promote and export final products with added value. They understood the need of improving backward linkages by building trust with farmers based on fair pricing for buyout of fruits, provision of extension service and establishing long term sustainable relations within supply chain.
Additionally, the group became more knowledgeable on mechanisms that can be used in partnership with the community for building recognition/branding of the region by promoting local apples and cherries and rural tourism.
Upgraded knowledge and capacity will increase possibilities for participating companies to improve production of apples and cherries by installing intensive orchard and technology, upgrade current facilities/equipment or constructing new cold storage facilities for proper calibrating, sorting, storing in controlled atmosphere/temperature dynamics for various produce, packaging and labeling of products according to highest market standards. This will allow companies to comply with market requirements thus improving their competitiveness and capacity to approach larger retailers in the region and targeted international markets.