Challenging time for Belgium


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10 July 2023
Soaring costs are hard to explain to consumers, says supplier. So why is the country looking to resort to imports and when is there likely to be some relief?

THE task of explaining "sky-high potato prices" to clients is becoming more and more difficult for Belgian supplier Warnez, since last summer.

The current high prices and a shortage of good-quality produce, combined with an "extremely problematic" new crop, are a real challenge for suppliers, according to Jurgen Duthoo of Warnez Potatoes in Belgium, which has been supplying the potato industry since 1950. 

"The entire season's been hard. Summer 2022 was very dry, so the potatoes evolved faster in storage. We thus had to switch to imports as early as May. Israel and Egypt were in the market then, but they, too, had quality issues. We were, therefore, paying a lot for good quality potatoes. It was the same later with Spain and Portugal, where the drought caused lower yields and lack of calibers," he said in a recent interview with Fresh Plaza.

To make any profit, the packer had to pass on costs. "But, it's hard to pass everything on towards retail. The raw material is practically twice as expensive, but explaining that to your customers is tough. Consumers won't pay double for their potatoes either. Prices did rise slightly, but unfortunately, you can't pass everything on," said Jurgen.

New crops in Belgium and Germany do not look promising, so the situation is not likely to improve any time soon, he said. 

"The next step would be Germany, but considering their situation, we can already see that those won't be cheaper either. Also, Belgium's growing year has begun, but everyone knows conditions here aren't ideal. Cold and wet spells in March and April meant growers couldn't work in their fields until May."

"The seed potatoes also have quite a few issues, partly due to the aforementioned 2022 summer conditions when they were grubbed. Plus, growers had the seed potatoes ready to plant but couldn't get into the field. Those were thus slowly sprouting, which had to be removed before they could go into the ground. That doesn't do the quality any good," Jurgen said.

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A long dry spell following planting meant intensive irrigation was needed to soften the soil so now, despite some showers, field development is erratic. Some areas are seeing good growth but others have no tubers at all, or plants are partially rotting. 

Rain in July could be very good for the potatoes, but for now, little is forecast and it's not likely to be enough to save the crop and further irrigation will be needed. Suppliers will most likely need to consider imports for a while, said Jurgen, which is obviously pricier. 

"The question is: When will there be a price relief? There's talk of a 2% potato acreage expansion in Belgium, but when yields are low, that doesn't translate into volumes. It's going to be an exciting few weeks," he said.

Source: Fresh Plaza

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