Bolzano – Innovation, consumer behaviour, new applications in the field of science, technology and research in the global apple industry where addressed by over twenty international speakers in Bolzano in November 2016.

Marco Parisi Fotografo

Photo: Marco Parisi

Day one:  “The apple market in transition”

Chaired by Gerhard Dichgans, Director of the VOG Consortium, the first day was dedicated to the apple market. Arnold Schuler, the Province of Bolzano’s Councillor for Agriculture, introduced the subject of change in production techniques and organisation of the market: innovation and know-how, of which South Tyrol is a forerunner and an example for the rest of the world, are the fundamental levers to address it. European Parliament representative Herbert Dorfmann spoke about the future of European Agricultural Policy, which will include improvements to the insurance system and incentives to facilitate groupings in protection consortia.

Considerable space was given to South Tyrolean fruit growing, with the report by Siegfried Rinner of the South Tyrol Farmers’ Union: “Apple-growing in South Tyrol represents 55% of the area’s agricultural wealth, 67% of farms have between 2 and 10 hectares of cultivable land and the yield per hectare has increased by 63% over the past twenty years, reaching the upper limits of productivity. In addition to the producers many other parties are revolving around the South Tyrolean apple”.

Rinner continued: “producer organisations, insurance associations, nurseries, experimental and research centres, and Fiera: a system made up of many small but important planets. Parties who work with, and not against, each other. It is a truly unique phenomenon.”

Joan Bonany, agricultural engineer and director of IRTA (Institut de Recerca i Tecnologia Agroalimentaries), addressed the theme of intensification and sustainability in apple growing, or how to produce more with fewer resources or with better resources. The idea is that technology can help minimise the impact on the environment, for example through techniques for the interception of light or for robotic picking.

Helwig Schwartau of AMI concluded the first day with a demographic analysis regarding apple consumption data in Europe and the world: “We live in an age when consumers are increasingly seeking quality, taste and assurance and are prepared to pay more for these elements of distinctiveness.”  

Day two: “What consumers have to say”

On the second day, chaired by Michael Oberhuber, Director of the Laimburg Research Centre for Agriculture and Forestry, the focus of debate was the consumer, new trends in behaviour, and the importance of sensory attributes in the purchasing decision.

Valerie Lengard Almli of Nofima illustrated the importance of sensory drivers (appearance, texture, fragrance, taste and smell) in defining a preference, and the correlation between these and the sociodemographic characteristics of consumers. “Culture, life-style or previous consumption experience influence the consumer’s perception” – she says – “Therefore it is not only the intrinsic elements of the product that are important in a purchasing decision.”

Alessandra Castellini, Professor at the University of Bologna’s Department of Agricultural Sciences, continued by presenting a recent research project carried out on a sample of 301 apple consumers and aimed at knowing the buying habits and variables that determine an increased WTP (Willingness to Pay), or the willingness of consumers to pay a higher price in exchange for a certain perceived characteristic. “Research, conducted in five stores in Bologna, northern Italy, showed that consumers often buy apples because they regard them as beneficial to health and prefer the local product, thereby significantly increasing WTP.”

According to the report by Roger Harker of Plant&Food Research on the relationship between genetics, ethnicity and consumer perception: “It is interesting how a product relates to the world’s various cultures and how people relate to food, and what are the emotional factors that lead to the choice of a product and the qualities that influence a purchase and repurchase.”

 

Ronan Symoneaux, an engineer at the Food Science and Bioresource Technology Department of Angers, presented a study carried out in France for determining the factors driving preferences with respect to raw materials, demographic factors and production processes. The outcome of this study led to the potential for a greater willingness to purchase as a result of better communication on the sensory characteristics of the apple: crispness, juiciness, ripeness, sweetness and fragrance. An interesting innovation comes from the Laimburg Research Centre for Agriculture and Forestry. Lidia Lozano and Michael Oberhuber (the Centre’s Director) provided some results of the qualitative and instrumental laboratory analysis on more than 200 apple varieties. “There are very many varieties: in appearance and name – explains Lidia Lozano – some can also look alike in the intrinsic characteristics that denote crispness, acidity, or astringency, whereas these varieties are very different, and even opposite. The choice therefore becomes difficult for an average consumer. Thanks to the qualitative analysis, we know that each variety has a different transfer window. The compromise is therefore to find a group of apples that better meet the characteristics of more people.” “The instrumental analysis of varieties using advanced technologies such as DNA Finger Printing allowed us to cluster varieties based on the chemical profile of each – adds Oberhuber – and we launched the Pomosano platform so as to direct producers, thanks to a substantial database with agronomic, chemical and sensory data, identified according to genetic principles and on the basis of local territorial characteristics.” Day two ended with a talk by Klaus Glasser, CEO of Vog Products, who said he was optimistic about the future of apple-based products. Superfresh, sustainability and certification: these are what that the new consumer wants, and taste becomes increasingly central. “Millennials are informed. They are curious and want to try new things. They are health-conscious, shun the traditional and seek quality, paying even more for it. Convenience food, smoothies and single-packs. The added value is much higher for these products, and here the apple has a new market to be discovered.”

Day three: “News from science, research and technology”

The third day, chaired by Prof. Massimo Tagliavini of the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, touched on themes of innovation in the field of science, research and technology in the apple industry. Dr. Dieter Bologna, South Tyrol Nursery and Fruit Growers’ Consortium – KSB Cooperative, started the last day by dwelling upon the production numbers of vegetative material from 1981 (the year the Consortium was created) to date, focusing on important changes that have occurred. Production is regularly growing, but the market composition has changed: today there is a high concentration, with more than 60% of the plants produced by just a few large concerns. Even the varietal assortment has favoured the cultivation of so-called “unstable” varieties, such as the Gala and its variations, which are much liked by consumers. For South Tyrol nurseries, the correct forecasting of demand is essential, given the long storage period for plants in the nursery (2/3 years) and the wide range of available varieties. “South Tyrol is famous for a high quality level based on the expertise of its individual nurseries, which ensures an excellent starting product for fruit growers in the area,” concludes Bologna.  

Josef Österreicher and Jürgen Christanell – Consulting Centre for fruit and wine growing in South Tyrol – discussed the different pruning systems and types of apple farming.

The primary objective is to obtain high, constant and good quality yields. This is possible through a careful analysis of the climatic and geological conditions of the respective territory. Light interception and the type of pruning implemented are important: the main trend is to streamline the shapes of trees so as to increase the exploitation of sunlight on the fruit-bearing wall and avoid the problem of apical dominance, resulting in advantages also for automated picking. “The morphology of the systems is very important in South Tyrol, as it makes it possible to exploit the limited available space,” says Christanell.

 

Closely related to this issue is the talk given by Robert Wiedmer, who discussed the management of irrigation of South Tyrolean apple-growing systems. In South Tyrol, irrigation management does not only regard the dry periods during summer, but is all-important also in spring as frost protection for the buds. Human intervention thus proves to be fundamental also to avoid over-watering, which would cause a too high yield, at the expense of the quality of apples, the potential proliferation of pathogens, and dilution of the soil’s nutrients. To support this, the MONALISA platform is available for fruit growers.

The second part of the morning began with technological innovations on which the Laimburg Research Centre for Agriculture and Forestry is working in order to improve the quality of South Tyrol’s production. In the first talk, Jennifer Brenner presented EUFRUIT, the platform prepared and implemented by the centre in order to link know-how stemming from practical work in the field to the theory work of laboratory studies, to convey the information and make it accessible for sharing. Within the projects created to increase collaboration between research and industry, Dr. Angelo Zanella continued by further illustrating MONALISA, the project in collaboration with EURAC and UniBz and focused on environmental monitoring of the South Tyrol area. The collection of physical data on the ecosystem is made possible by measurement stations and probes placed in individual orchards, with the aim of creating a system able to provide fruit growers with forecast information.

Lastly, the topic of technological innovation in the machinery used in fruit growing concludes the conference.

Michael Stauder of IDM-Suedtirol offered an insight into trends linked to connectivity, and the intelligent coordination of human-human, man-machine and machine-machine activities. Thanks to the ever greater awareness regarding neo-ecology, shown by producers and consumers and by the globalisation of traditional farming techniques, innovation plays an increasingly important role. According to Stauder “the future of agriculture, in the South Tyrol and elsewhere, lies in factors such as electric motors and environmentally sustainable paints, greater use of mechatronics, the digitisation of machinery and the use of automatically controlled equipment.”