“Fun size” Gala apples packed in Poland for major UK supermarket.
Poland has traditionally been a supplier of
cheap apples to Russia, but its entry into the European Union in 2004 opened up new markets.
Krzysztof Hermanowicz, a fourth-generation apple grower at Dalboszek in Poland’s main apple-growing region, said he and his family welcomed the opportunity to expand their markets beyond Russia. Two years ago, Russia closed its border to Polish apples for a time, which appeared to be a purely political decision, he said.
"How can we work with such a customer when the politics are involved with market decisions? So, today, we’re trying to change our direction and we try to find a place on the Western market."
Krzyzstof has two orchards, totaling 30 hectares (75 acres), in the growing region around Grójec, which has more than 40,000 hectares (100,000 acres) of orchard, producing half a million metric tons of apples.
In 2004, his sons Marcin and Michal formed a packing and export company called Fresh Fruit Services in cooperation with a Belgian partner Achiel Rychaert to focus on western markets. "We decided the English market would be the best because the English market pays the best money," he explained. "Of course, they ask for the best quality."
Krzysztof said his family was able to meet those quality requirements, having previously supplied supermarkets in Germany for seven years. "It was easy for us to fulfill the standards which were asked for the buyers and I think it was the right decision."
Today, the United Kingdom is their top market and the company’s export volume has been increasing by 100 percent each year, he said, and they’re shipping almost 60 trucks there each month. The fruit goes by truck and rail through the Chunnel, a tunnel under the English Channel. It takes less than 36 hours to drive from the packing house to England.
But the size of the apples UK buyers want has been shrinking.
"Some years we even exported 55 millimeters (2.2 inches) for a school program," Krzysztof said. "The apples are so small they are almost not salable in any other market."
Krzysztof said they’ve had to change their growing practices to produce such small apples. It means not doing much pruning or thinning.
His son Marcin said the family is unusual in focusing so heavily on the UK market. Most growers in the area still ship mainly to Russia, which prefers big, red apples. Besides trying to grow smaller fruit, the Hermanowiczs are also switching varieties to produce Gala and Empire for the United Kingdom.
They still have young plantings of Sampion, a variety that produces good fruit and crops regularly. It’s popular in Polish and Scandinavian markets, but doesn’t store or transport well.
Krzysztof said that before 1996, he planted trees on 2 meters (6 feet) apart with 4 meters (12 feet) between rows. The average density in Polish orchards was 1,200 trees per hectare (486 per acre).
"When we organized the Polish Dwarf Tree Association, the densities went up to 10,000 trees per hectare (4,000 per acre)," he recalled. "After five years, we decided the Dutch model of 3 by 1 meter or 3,300 trees per hectare (1,336 per acre) was best. We said, ‘That’s it. The game is over. This density is the best for the Polish climate and soil conditions.’"
About 90 percent of his trees are on Malling 9 rootstocks, but M.26 is used for some replant sites. Each tree is supported by a pine stake, which Marcin said lasts for the 15-year life of the orchard. "A third of the country is forest," he said, "So we don’t have any problems to get pine stakes."
The family recruits local people as well as workers from the Ukraine during harvest. Marcin said Polish laws were changed recently to make it easier to hire workers from abroad. Previously, employers had to prove they could not find enough local workers before they were allowed to hire foreigners. Typically, a picker can harvest six to nine 330-kilo (726-pound) bins per day. They are paid 10 zlotys (U.S.$2.68) per hour.
With Gala, they expect production of 50 trees per hectare by the fifth or sixth leaf, but Sampion can yield 80 tons per hectare at maturity.
Fresh Fruit Services employs 23 people in the packing house, which is located at one of their two orchards. Some of the packing plant employees also work in the orchard at planting time, Marcin said. The company packs and sells fruit produced by 96 small farmers in the area, as well as from the Hermanowicz’s own 30 hectares (75 acres).
Krzysztof said he is proud of the success his sons have had in the business and pleased that they chose not to go to the cities to work, like many other young people. "The fruit business is hard and competitive," he observed.
Krzysztof also owns a nearby 380-hectare (938-acre) farm producing wheat, sugar beets, and milk. Before World War II it belonged to a Jewish family. About 3,000 Jews who lived in the area were killed during the Holocaust. Under the Communist regime, the farm became a state farm. After the political changes 20 years ago, the government tried to sell the farms, and Krzysztof bought his in 2004.
In addition to being a farmer, Krzysztof is a partner in a former state-owned publishing company, along with seven other growers. They publish magazines for the fresh fruit, vegetable, and flower industries.