Agriculture

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Agriculture outlook: top fruits

What does the near future hold for apples, pears and other top fruits?

Last updated: 21 Jul 2020 6 min read

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  • Less than half (42%) of all apples consumed in the UK are grown here, but trade body British Apples & Pears wants to increase this proportion to 60% in the next decade
  • An extreme summer heatwave across southern Europe combined with an outbreak of Alternaria disease to cut the pear harvest by 30%, significantly raising prices
  • The UK cherry market has bounced back from years of decline that started in the last century to produce the biggest harvest for nearly 50 years, at 6,500 tonnes

The UK sector continues to be concerned about the impact of Brexit on seasonal workers, the future of producer organisation funding, rising input costs and the impact of seasonal tariffs, says British Apples & Pears executive chair Ali Capper. But the trade association wants to boost UK apple growers’ market share to a target of 60%. Examining market dynamics and consumer behaviour, it has recently produced a white paper in collaboration with The Grocer magazine, and with contributions from research institutes, trend forecasters and trade journals.

“We are a really ambitious, forward-thinking industry,” Capper says. “We need sensible government policy that will help us to achieve these ambitions.”

Apples

The big picture

According to the US Department of Agriculture, the world produced nearly 71m metric tons of apples in 2018/19 – the lowest figure in recent years and down 3.2m on 2017/18. Extreme weather is mostly to blame, particularly frost, heavy rain and hail in April and May across China, which grows almost half (33m metric tons) of the world’s apples.

European demand

By contrast, a mild EU winter means its yield surged 50% to 15m metric tons in 2018/19. This cut the number of imported apples to 493,000 metric tons, while a surge in demand from Egypt and India drove EU exports back up to 1.2m metric tons.

Source: the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC)

Domestic demand

Less than half (42%) of all apples consumed in the UK are grown here – although that represents a 50% rise in market share over the past decade. British Apples & Pears wants to increase this further, to 60% in the next decade. The trade body has invested £120m in technology and R&D, and has planted eight million new trees. The huge domestic demand for apples means the UK exports only about 3% of its crop.

Warm days and cool nights over the late summer, with an unusual temperature differential of up to 15 degrees, led to British Apples & Pears reporting the reddest – and therefore most attractive – crop for many years. But Brexit is having a more adverse impact: a National Farmers’ Union (NFU) survey found that in the month before the 31 October 2019 deadline, the shortfall in seasonal workers had climbed to 16.3%. Over 4,000 job vacancies were unfilled in the 12 months to October, leaving 16m apples – 1,147 tonnes – unpicked as a result. Earlier this year, then home secretary Sajid Javid announced the government would pilot a Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme allowing 2,500 workers to come from outside the EU, but the general election has added more uncertainty.

Speaking to The Independent, Ali Capper warned: “Brexit has put a lot of question marks in the minds of EU nationals. The shortages have increased every year since the referendum. A number of large-scale horticultural businesses have said they will scale back UK production and move investment overseas next year if they do not receive a clear signal from government.”

Source: OEC

Domestic prices

According to the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), at the start of December, homegrown Bramley apples were selling wholesale for an average £1.02 per kg and Braeburns at 85p. Both of these are up on the same week last year, the Bramley price by almost 50%.

The retail apple price in October was £1.86 per kg, the lowest price in seven years.

Pears

The big picture

Increasing demand for organic fruits and their health benefits is set to grow the fresh pears market by 3.42m tonnes – a compound annual growth rate of 1.12% – over the next five years. More than two thirds of the 23m metric tonnes of pears produced each year grow in China, suffering from the same extreme weather conditions that affected the country’s apples, which pushed prices up. The global average price per kg at the beginning of December was $1.19 (90p), up 7.8% on the same time last year.

Source: WorldAtlas

European demand

Crops were also hit in Europe, most notably in Italy, the world’s third largest pear producer, where an extreme summer heatwave across southern Europe combined with an outbreak of the fungal, fruit-rotting Alternaria disease to cut the harvest by 30%. This significantly raised prices in the last quarter of 2019, particularly for Europe’s number-one Abate variety.

Domestic demand

As with apples, almost all UK-grown pears are for the domestic market and imports heavily outweigh a virtually non-existent export market.

Domestic prices

The average kg price at the beginning of December was $1.17, up 13% on a year ago.

Plums

This year’s 12.05m ton global plum and apricot harvest is up 3.6% on 2018 figures. Average global price of plums per kg in early December was $1.40, 7% down on last month. The UK consumes 80,000 tonnes of plums a year but only around 12,000 tonnes of them are grown domestically, two thirds the number of five years ago and less than a third of the 28,000 tonnes growers were producing in the late 1980s. This year’s spring frosts, followed by a continued dry spell, followed by hail storms significantly affected the UK’s plum harvest, especially the particularly weather-dependent Victoria variety, which pushed up prices in the late summer.

However, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) recently showcased a new Plum Demonstration Centre with 23 new varieties and technologies showing UK producers how to extend the growing season from June to October.

Cherries

Around 789,000 tonnes of cherries were imported globally last year, an increase of 30% – making the global cherry market worth around $12.3bn (£9.3bn), up 11% year on year. Turkey is the world’s leading cherry producer, harvesting 480,000 metric tons every year.

Source: the Guardian/British Summer Fruits

The UK cherry market is booming. British growers produced around 6,500 tonnes in 2019, more than double the amount picked last year and the highest total for nearly half a century. This is a remarkable bounceback for a sector that lost 90% of UK cherry orchards over the second half of the 20th century, and as little as 10 years ago was importing 95% of all cherries sold in Britain.

The value of UK cherry production in 2017 stood at nearly £24m – nearly eight times greater than in 1985. This year’s bumper harvest is partly down to favourable winter weather, said British cherries spokesperson Matt Hancock, but he added: “Long-term investments in new varieties, root stocks, covers and optical grading capacity across the industry over the last decade is starting to make a real impact on the reliability of this once incredibly volatile crop.”

Britain exports around $1.5m (£1.14m) worth of cherries per year – around 0.05% of the world total.

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