It's all about producing quality and giving the market what it wants
How can the sector respond even better to the market? On the fringe of the international tomato conference (13-14-15 March), we talked about this with the president of Coöperatie Hoogstraten. It's a challenge to keep going down the path of quality and diversity. We have to be constantly on the lookout for the best ways to respond to a market that never stands still.
First of all: the Belgian tomato sector in figures
The head of quality at LAVA presented the Tomato Conference with a picture of the tomato sector in figures. The area this year stands at some 500 hectares, spread across about 250 growers. In 2015, the total volume of tomatoes (loose, cluster and plum) came to 246 million kg. Last year, 22 million kg of specialties were produced. Seventy per cent of our tomatoes are exported, mainly to France, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Italy. Up until 2014, when that export market was closed off, some 20 million kg of tomatoes were being sent to Russia every year.
The volume of loose tomatoes has stayed fairly stable in recent years. Cluster tomatoes have seen peaks and troughs, but overall, the trend has been upwards. The share of beef tomatoes has dropped, explains Raf De Blaiser. What's striking is the massive increase in the specialties. At 106 hectares, the area now accounts for about 20% of the total. Year-round production is likely to increase even further in the years ahead.
A huge range of products
What are you taking away from this tomato conference?
Dirk Van den Plas, president, Coöperatie Hoogstraten: The fact that the tomato sector has changed dramatically over the past twenty years and the days of the original single, uniform product are long gone. Customers no longer come in one standard type either. The social trend dictates differentiation. The trade wants to have a huge range of products at its disposal to allow it to respond to the specific demands from all the players in the market. There are massive numbers of new varieties available, and these have a lot to offer on various markets. There is already an extensive range of specialties and there is still room for innovations. One such innovation is the non-leaking tomato, which is giving some of our buyers a lot of satisfaction. The catering sector has also already embraced it with open arms. Now it's the consumer's turn. Quality, good organisation and marketing are the right ingredients for a successful product.
Confidence in Flandria
What are the tomato growers' own priorities?
We are constantly faced with the challenge of making ourselves stand out with a premium product. The trade needs to be able to buy our Flandria products with complete confidence. So the quality of Flandria tomatoes has to be the same all season long. Confidence in the freshness, the quality and the origin of the product are the most powerful drivers for purchases by both retail and consumers. How can we achieve that? I think we have to continue to focus on even stricter requirements. We also need transparency, so that it's clear which batch is covered by the label. Consumers also have to be happy: 'If I buy Flandria, I can be 100% sure that it'll be good'.
What is the sector going to focus on in the future?
Sustainability is the common theme running throughout our growing programme. In day-to-day practice, the growers and auctions have long been concentrating closely on sustainability under Responsibly Fresh. What does that entail? Alongside rational energy use and recovery of raw materials, I also think the social side is important, by which I mean treating staff properly, and showing consideration for the weaker players in the labour market. We are working really hard on Responsibly Fresh, and that will continue to be an important priority in the future. There is simply no alternative any more. Sustainability is a factor which is critical to purchasing behaviour for a growing group of consumers, and retail is taking that on board.
Taste and perception
What do you think the retail side wants?
It's clear that retail still wants to offer the customer basic quality at an attractive price. It also wants to keep the distance between producer and consumer as short as possible. The auctions take care of the marketing and the bundling of supplies, but there is definitely a growing trend towards collecting purchased produce direct from the farm. Our modern tomato farms have the necessary logistical facilities to allow this. This offers nothing but advantages in terms of the freshness and keeping properties of the product. The retail side also wants to see a focus on flavour! New tomato varieties need to be selected even more by reference to their taste.
And what about the consumer?
There is unquestionably increased demand for convenience, and growers and the trade are reacting rapidly to this with pre-cut vegetable products: mixed salads, chopped vegetables, stir-fry mixes and dinner salads. But it is noticeable that at the same time, there is a growing middle segment of consumers whose purchasing behaviour is also driven by healthiness, variety and enjoyment. This is where product perception and authenticity have a far greater role to play than convenience. To quote trend watcher Adjiedj Bakas's baseline at the tomato conference: 'Food must be fun'. It's all about perception, with products which are flavoursome or perhaps look good. We have seen the success of colourful snacks. Authenticity covers things like heritage tomatoes and seasonal vegetables. I'm also thinking here about the interest in colour nuances in packs of specialties.
The story behind the product
How important is the health aspect?
Health is a social trend which is becoming increasingly important, and we as vegetable cooperatives have to work together even more to respond to this. One category of consumers is willing to pay a premium for it. Our snack tomatoes are gaining popularity among the health-conscious, which is one reason why production of specialties is on the up. I think that labels also need to show that the product is healthy. There are concerns about how food is produced. Consumers want to know more about what they are eating. We need complete transparency along the whole fruit, vegetable and potato chain. We have to communicate openly and objectively with consumers. That means we have to tell them the whole story behind their fruit and vegetables. Growers, auctions and sales outlets can all highlight 'Responsibly Fresh'. This will certainly give shopkeepers a good selling point with their customers.
Thinking about the market
What homework did the growers get at the conference?
I always say: 'A product needs to satisfy the wishes of the consumer in order to tempt him to peruse the shelves'. Our society and the market are in a constant state of flux. Horticulture is no exception. The challenge is to provide the right responses. What's important to us as horticultural cooperatives is that we have to constantly be looking at the best way to respond to this changing market. We can't afford to stand still, we have to think about new technologies and new forms of sales. In addition to sustainability and product perception, marketing is another important factor in a competitive market. Social media is now very much a part of modern life, and plays an essential role in reaching younger consumers. However, the sector has to learn how to use these media effectively. Distance selling, in the form of online sales, is performing well, there is further scope there. And finally, as a small player on the European market, our country has to continue to distinguish itself thanks to quality and flavour.