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Israel: More demand for strawberries on domestic market
“Back in 1994, you couldn’t find strawberries on the market. There were Israeli growers producing strawberries, but the produce was only meant for export to the UK. Right now, only 5% of our volumes of strawberries is sent to Europe, while the rest goes to the domestic market,” says Eli Yamini.
Over the past few years, strawberries have grown as a commodity in Israel. One of the reasons for this trend is that the Israeli production of strawberries complements other seasons of fruit really well. While fruit like grapes, peaches and nectarines have traditionally always played an important role for Israeli consumers, the peak season for strawberries takes place during the off-season those other fruit types.
“Israeli consumers have come to appreciate high quality strawberries a lot more. We used to send our top quality volumes to Europe, but right now prices in Israel have risen in a way that makes the domestic market just as attractive as the export market. The prices in the UK have diminished as well, which is also because of the lower rate of the British pound as opposed to the Israel shekel,” explains Eli.
Viva Farmers has been working extensively with the Volcani research institute in the development of new strawberry varieties that are fit for both cultivation in Israel and the Israel market itself. There are some distinct differences with varieties that are meant for export and ones that are sold at the domestic market. For one, there is a difference in shelf life. This plays an important part with regards to the logistics needed for far off export markets.
Another main difference is that Israeli consumers favour a sweet taste, while European consumers like their fruit to have a balance between sweet and fresh or sour. In Europe, a pinkish red colour is associated with freshness. For Israeli consumers on the other hand, a high quality in strawberries is usually implied by having a dark red colour, giving the impression of a sweet taste. To Israeli consumers, pinkish red strawberries would come across as unripe and not fit for consumption.
“However, the quality for both markets is the same. Another similarity is the way strawberries are represented in Israeli retail. You used to buy strawberries at a store, where they were just scooped up out a box, but right now consumers want to evaluate the quality of the fruit before buying it. Packaging is now done in a way that ensures consumers get good quality,” says Noam Sirota.
While there is a lot of competition from European strawberry growers within the export market, Viva Farmers capitalizes on a market window that lasts from mid November to mid January. During this period, the company has enough fruit to divide between Israel and Europe, while the main European competitors are experiencing their off-season.
According to Noam, Israeli strawberries are quite clean and healthy. The company complies with all health certificates like GlobalGAP and tries to use the least amount of pesticides and fungicides possible. Growers that are allied to Viva Farmers make use of plastic sheets, protecting the fruit from heavy rainfall, but also diminishing pests and diseases due to the rising temperatures in the soil.
Viva Farmers isn’t experiencing any serious competition within Israel, even though the production of strawberries has recently become a lot more attractive as opposed to the horrible state of the current melon and pomegranate sectors. “It’s not easy to grow strawberries. You need experienced staff members, greenhouses and investments to make a profit. Some growers already may have the necessary facilities, like with pepper growers. These companies could easily make the shift to strawberries. But another challenge is the very short cultivation period of strawberries. A mistake in the first season could lead to the compete loss of your strawberry season. Growing pomegranates leaves much more room for error.”
Another reason the company isn’t suffering any difficulties with any competition is that the regional fruit sector is largely based on cooperation. For the export of strawberries, Viva Farmers works with 10 to 12 local growers that are equally specialised in export and are keen to help each other out in times of difficulties.
“90% of the strawberry volume comes from this region. Here, we have a good soil that’s not too salty. This makes the region very suitable for strawberry production, coupled with the temperate climate. We’ve also got a major research institute in this region. Israeli farmers are well known for the combination of knowledge and experience. The Israel government helps out farmers all over the world, sending out experts and researchers to stimulate the economy through agriculture,” says Noam.
He admits that Viva Farmers could never survive on just one month of exports. The main products the export company is focusing on are herbs like basil and sage. The company works with local growers, whose produce it stores in cold storage facilities near airports. From there, the produce is exported through air cargo. Their main market is Europe, although the company is looking for more opportunities in Asia.
According to Noam, the main challenge for the world market is fluctuating currency rates. “We try to work around this by relying on both sides of the markets, both local and export. We’re now exporting only 5% of our produce. That amount used to be 80% to 90%. But it’s not only the currency rates. It’s also about demand. Demand in Israel really is very strong right now, and not just for strawberries. All produce sectors are currently expanding their acreage,” concludes Noam Sirota.
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