The Consortium of South Tyrolean Fruit Growers’ Cooperatives (VOG) is leading throughout Europe in the production and commercialisation of integrated and organic produced South Tyrolean apples in 75 countries. More than 75 years after the company’s foundation, we spoke with Werner Castiglioni, director of Biosüdtirol, the organic Cooperative belonging to the VOG Consortium, and Hannes Tauber, head of marketing for VOG Consortium.
What is VOG?
In VOG, we are together for around 4.600 southtyrolean farmers: rural families with their small-sized farms of 2 or 2,5 hectares. The Consortium exists since 1945 now because of a decision made by farmers to get together. They are professionals in the field of producing, but when it comes to packaging, to sorting, to exporting on the market, they need to have a joined voice. One voice that speaks for 4.600 growers. The Consortium is then divided in 12 packing houses around South Tyrol.
For what concerns organic production, 30 years ago, there were only a few farmers that had decided to go for organic. 20 years ago, there were around 20. Nowadays there are 300 farmers cultivating organic. It’s always in their own decision to go for organic, because the Consortium are the farmers, and the farmers decide how they produce their products. They go organic because they want to, because they are convinced and want to try this production. The number of farmers has doubled in the last five years because they see in organic a future for their family: they identify with organic’s values. It’s not only a type of production; it is also a lifestyle.
«The number of farmers has doubled in the last five years because they see in organic a future for their family: they identify with organic’s values»
Do these organic farmers cultivate in neighboring plants?
It’s their own free decision. We can’t make islands: the farmers deciding to go organic can live far from each other. What we can and have to do is controlling residue handling. Before harvesting, we always do analyses to control the harvest.
Do you see a trend towards going organic in the Consortium? Conventional farmers are reducing or increasing?
It’s changing. There was more integrated production before which now has been replaced by organic production. This because it’s not possible for the Consortium farmers to increase the farming land: We are in the middle of the mountains and the space we can use is limited. The years before they were doing integrated and now are doing organic. They remain in the group, in the system of the cooperative; they only change the production way, nothing else. They’ve always been members.
The farmers are divided between the ones that do integrated and the ones that do organic: farmers have to choose between the two kinds of cultivation. Additionally they are members of organic association like Bioland or Demeter.
Can you tell us more about the ‘sustainapple’ project?
We have seen that when it comes to sustainability, especially in the recent years, it has turned into a topic of public interest to the point where we also need to communicate it both to consumers and to retailers. Sustainability was always for us the basis of our work, our DNA, it was always part of our company: our members are family-ruled farms and they need to look at the future for the coming generations. If you don’t work sustainable, there will be no future for the coming generations and no income for your kids.
With this need to make it visible on a global level, the ‘sustainapple’ project was created with a name, specific goals and objectives. We want to feed people healthy, so we want to produce healthy food, healthy apples, that can be available for consumers across the countries. Another goal is that we take nature as our partner. We work in the field with nature, so we have to understand and study how nature and soil are evolving.
«If you don’t work sustainable, there will be no future for the coming generations and no income for your kids»
Another key point to ‘sustainapple’ is also to explain and share this role model of South Tyrol agriculture, with the family-ruled farms as part of cooperatives. So, join together and at the same time make a force of union. Together we are stronger and manage to maintain small farms in the long term for future generations. Those are our three pillars.
You’ve seen different market perspectives. When it comes to retailers, how is your perception in different countries?
As far as concerns organic, we export now to 40 different countries around the globe. We’ve also seen Arabia and Asia’s market, but our main market remains in Europe. In every country, you think they know what organic means, but actually there’s too few knowledge in it. So, our job is to bring forward organic consumption, by educating retailers and consumers about organic.
In Germany we have around 5% of organic consumption. If they achieved 5% of consumption, they could achieve another 5%. I see there is development and an interesting increase in consumption.
How do you see the Spanish market?
Spain is one of the bigger producers of organic. They know very well what organic is. The percentage of consumption until now is low, but I think that in the future it will be more and more. We actually sell them the Bio Marlene® apple. We have our partner there. I think what we must learn is to not only have an apple there, but more organic and more varieties. We need more space. We see there is a big possibility to bring new varieties.
One strong signal to give to retailers and also to consumers is that fruit and vegetables are interesting; there is a story to tell. Something that consumers are looking forward to. Giving a signal in increasing the presence of fruit and vegetables in stores throughout the year. We are seeing now that the organic new varieties are different from the traditional ones, in terms of sustainability and also of taste. Approaching new modern consumers by giving them apples and additional information on the apple, how it has been produced, who produced it, what is the taste, the flavour, what can they do with the apple, the recipes they can use it for. Also investing in nice product presentation.
How can retailers do that?
We are trying to look into the future and to understand the consumer of tomorrow’s needs. Because when we plant a tree out, it will be productive in 15 or 20 years. We need to understand what the consumer of the future is going to eat. Starting with that, it can be good to have a category management and try to support retailers and our partners, and what you think is a good idea or can be a good selection of the shelf. So, it is today, but also in the future. We see what type of apples we are planting now, what will be in the future. And how can we communicate to the consumer and have the biggest impact? With nice product presentation in the store, a nice display, product rotation, so we don’t have apples laying on the shelf for weeks. When people like the apples, they are more likely to go into the store to buy and rebuy them. Fresh product taste better and makes consumer rebuy it.
«We are trying to look into the future and to understand the consumer of tomorrow’s needs»
We need to understand how to give orientation to the consumer. How does the consumer understands at the point of sale this are apples and wants to try them. It has to look nice. It can be through brands, because for the consumer there is a commitment. Once to understand this commitment, keep it, and the consumer will come back.
There is an orientation based on taste, in apples. We need to explain if you do a taste of different varieties, there’s subtle differences in flavours. There’s a huge world we can dive into and experience by having a very sour tasting, very crunchy, very juicy apple. There’s a lot of variety in apple category. And of course, to play with colours: try product presentation based on colours, sizes…
There is a lot of potential for the sector and at the same time what we think is very important as well is that people in stores have to be well informed about the products they sell. We need to invest together with our partners in giving expertise in apples to people who work in stores. When we know about the product, the story is more interesting to work with it. We not only see a red apple, but we also know the story of this product, we know something more. There’s a lot of work to do, but there is commitment in going in that direction.
«People in stores have to be well informed about the products they sell»
We need to work together, first of all. At an EU level, we have challenging times ahead of us and therefore we have to stick together and face those challenges together. We should never lose the focus on what is really important, which is on both sides, the producer (to have good products delivered to the market), and of course the consumer, to be satisfied with what is on the shelves.
We are trying to be very innovative, bringing new varieties to the market, approaching new systems, investing in campaigns and marketing, supporting the local market, trying to get apples to the stores. We work with Spanish partners and try to support them as well. In local market and in the same time in an EU level. Those levels working together are trying to convince the consumer and bring a product to the market. That is something we will continue to work with.
Author: Oriol Urrutia, Co-Editor
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