Polish blueberry growers diversify markets and boost demand at home
April 29, 2019

Brexit uncertainty has accelerated the Polish blueberry industry’s push into new markets and domestic marketing ventures, while plantings continue for the traditionally U.K. export-oriented sector.

The Polish Blueberry Promotion Foundation is amongst the most recent members to join the International Blueberry Organization (IBO), and is led by Dominika Kozarzewska of one of the country’s leading producer organizations Polskie Jagody.

“We are discovering the rest of Europe in terms of export markets because up until now everyone was really focused on Great Britain,” says Kozarzewska.

“Now a lot of us are diversifying more, selling more to Germany, to France, Switzerland, even the Mediterranean countries which a few years back people were saying do not consume blueberries.”

She notes the German market is shifting demand towards higher quality blueberries, so the Polish industry moving its focus a little bit from the U.K. “might actually do everybody some good”.

“This is one outcome that might come out of Brexit, because right now it’s changing from one week to the next and us not knowing whether they are going to introduce phytosanitary inspections,” she says.

“Maybe it will be in June and our exports start in July, so I just can’t imagine what is going to happen there.”

Kozarzewska joins longstanding IBO member Steve Taylor as a representative for the Polish sector. Taylor’s Winterwood Farms is based in the U.K. but has production in Poland.

Unlike other blueberry industries like Peru and South Africa, Poland’s sector is made up of a massive number of small growers, who it is estimated have an average volume of only 25-35 metric tons (MT). However, around 60% of the country’s production is controlled by 5% of the growers.

As such it is difficult to forecast Polish blueberry production, but the country’s delegation will present an estimate at the IBO Summit in Richmond, Canada from June 24-26, 2019.

Taylor reveals that while production can fluctuate quite significantly from year to year, overall it is tracking on about a 10% growth trend.

“In Poland you have lots of small family growers which have literally got one or two hectares, and some of them are probably never going to use fertigation,” he says, also noting most producers don’t use modern production systems like tunnels.

“Now most of the medium or larger-sized growers have at least got GlobalG.A.P.,” he adds.

However, Winterwood and Polskie Jagody are examples of larger companies that do use modern farming technologies and techniques.

Taylor claims 40% of his company’s Polish production goes to the U.K., and like Kozarzewska he sees great opportunities in Germany and Scandinavia.

“When we started around the year 2000 in Poland 100% would come to the U.K. but that decreased slowly over time as we increased and found other customers who wanted accredited product, and also more recently since the U.K. has increased its own production,” he says.

Kozarzewska also highlights Polskie Jagody’s moves exporting into Southeast Asia, which has been emulated by other Polish growers.

“We had some success there – obviously in these markets you measure success by the number of pallets per week and not the number of thousands of tons, but we’ve had some success,” she says.

“About five years ago we started selling there, and we were selling to Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, some to Hong Kong as well.

“But then it so happened that everybody became interested in Asia and for the last two years we have been facing very tough competition there; unfortunately, it’s price competition.”

Another challenge for the Polish industry to gain a foothold in Asia has been the shortness of the season over summer, which last year prompted the Polish Berry Cooperative to join forces with growers from Spain and Portugal to supply the market for around eight months in total.

“The response from the market has been quite good but we only started it in September last year so we’ll see how it goes,” she says.

In parallel, the Polish Blueberry Promotion Foundation was created in 2017 to run promotional campaigns for blueberries in Poland and other European countries.

“For many years Polish growers have underestimated the Polish market and many people were selling here whatever they could not sell abroad, which to me was not a very good strategy for a consumer market of 40 million people,” she says.

“There are a lot of small farms in Poland as well, so for me it is quite wise to make sure the fruit from these small farms gets sold locally so it doesn’t go to the wholesale market and lower the price dramatically.”

Four years ago the industry started with a small promotional campaign to give Polish consumers the message their country’s blueberry season began on July 1.

“We had an event starting the season and we decided to choose the youngest child of the Polish blueberry growers who is tasting the first blueberries of the season,” she says.

Promotions have also been run showing the use of bees – which have positive connotations – in orchards, and how hard farmers work to produce the fruit.

“Last year we were able to get funds for the campaign from the national fruit and vegetables promotion fund, and then we were able to promote the communications in what was called the Blueberry Summer,” she says.

“It was quite successful as we reached media like national TV, and there were a lot of publications in the press about how healthy blueberries are - we reached around 11 million consumers with the message so it was very efficient.”

The funding continues this year but will cover all soft fruit including strawberries and raspberries.

“Blueberries are still leading the way, but with the other fruits we can also reinforce the health message and also the beauty and wellbeing message,” he says.

Taylor describes the IBO’s growth as “phenomenal” since its humble beginnings a decade ago to now representing 95% of the world’s fresh blueberries, and he is upbeat about the inclusion of the Polish Blueberry Promotion Foundation.

“Our aim has always been to have as many country representatives as possible around the world, so every addition is very positive including the Polish having a more organized structure than they have done in the past,” he says.

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