Maintaining cold storage increasingly difficult, raspberry growers in trouble
The raspberry harvest in Serbia starts in two months, and much of last year's fruits are still waiting in cold storage. For the first time in decades, growers are facing the new economic year in debt. But they are not the only ones in trouble. For cold storage operators, the rising cost of electricity, due to the IMF agreement, leads to higher utility bills, while raspberry exports have slowed down.
Energy crisis, declining purchasing power in the West
30 thousand tonnes of raspberry are in cold storage in Serbia, according to official figures. Raspberries are one of the most important and emblematic products of Serbian agriculture, also known as red gold. However, for the first time in 70 years, they cannot be sold in time. Each month, only 6,000 tonnes are leaving the country, which means that it would take at least another five months to use up last year’s harvest.
But time is running out: this year’s harvest starts in two months, and there will be no place and no buyer for the fresh fruits, unless there is a radical change in the market.
The problem was generated by economic changes in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war and the energy crisis. The cost of maintaining cold storage facilities is so high that operators cannot compensate by increasing the price of frozen goods. They are losing 350 dinars, or 3 euros, per kilogram, the cold storage companies claim.
Another problem that producers complain about is that the market price of raspberry has dropped sharply. As for the exact reason, producers can only speculate. Consumer habits in Western countries have changed, says Milos Cvetkovic from Surdullica, who is involved in the growing, freezing and processing businesses.
During the Covid pandemic, demand skyrocketed as people preferred healthy, vitamin-rich food, he explains. Later, however, war and insecurity have brought about a completely opposite buying pattern: raspberries have become a luxury product that people in difficult financial circumstances can no longer afford to spend on. According to Mr Cvetkovic, this is why Serb cold storage operators are no longer able to sell as much fruit as before. I’ll try and process any remaining stocks, or, in the worst case, I’ll give them away, the distraught farmer adds.
Exports have decreased significantly, confirmed Bozo Jankovic, director of one of the agriculture cooperatives. According to their data, 96 thousand tonnes of Serbian raspberries were exported in 2021, while that number fell to only 68 thousand in 2022. Frozen raspberries in Serbia can currently be sold for a maximum of 300 dinars, or 2.60 euros, which is roughly half of what cold storage companies had promised to producers last year. Besides, the costs of cooling are rising exponentially. Some cold storage owners were able to pay the producers, but many simply can’t, so farmers have been waiting for months for storage owners to find potential buyers and receive income.
Processing and the need to join forces
According to agricultural analyst Vojislav Stankovic, the sector’s problem would be solved by expanding the processing industry. The fact that there are several middlemen between producers and foreign buyers is also an issue, meaning that raspberries cross many hands before reaching the foreign markets. In order to avoid this, the farmers must unite and sell their produce in a uniform manner, the expert adds.
„These intermediaries reduce the competitiveness of our agriculture,” he emphasized. As an example, he mentioned the raspberry growers of Arilje, who joined together in a cooperative and are currently present on the market as the most competitive small-region raspberry producer group.
Producers, however, argue that the state should also provide assistance. They are asking for discounted loans and a guarantee fund, and they demand that raspberries be given a „strategically important status” in Serbia. In connection with this topic, an agriculture ministry representative stressed that they are conducting intensive negotiations regarding possible loans in order to try and help producers and cold storage businesses in trouble.
Serbia is at the forefront of raspberry cultivation, even on a global scale. Data released by the Chamber of Commerce shows that Serbia’s raspberry harvest produced a yield of 80-90 thousand tonnes in 2021 but, according to other estimates, this figure exceeded 100 thousand tonnes.