The hysteria culprit, the cucumber, wreaks havoc in Lithuanian vegetable markets

  • 2011-07-13
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

Spanish vegetables are squeezing out local supply, says Zofia Cironkiene.

KLAIPEDA - First came mad cow disease, followed by two bird flu pandemics with pig flu in between; then, last year, pangasiuses’ fillet was to blame for a dangerous relapse of contagious diseases, and, finally, the large greenish Spanish cucumber has fallen victim in the frantic search for the culprit of the lethal E. coli bacteria wreaking havoc across Europe, as much in vegetable markets as in politics.

The hysteria over the Spanish-to-turn-out-not-so-much-Spanish cucumbers has devastated not only Spanish veggie farmers, but Lithuanian green growers as well. The extent of the buying and sales slump, throughout May and June of this year, was such a nose-dive that it made Laimute Grybauskiene, president of Lithuania’s Fruit and Vegetable Trading Enterprise Association (LFVTEA), call it “catastrophic.” The volume of cucumber buying and sales this year, compared to the same period last year, went down by 20.9 percent (down to 1,330,304 tons), fresh potato purchases and sales plummeted 32.2 percent, the tomato business dropped 28.6 percent, while the overall vegetable buying is estimated to be down by 446 percent throughout May and June.

“This vegetable and fruit high-season has been utterly messed up by the E. coli bacteria hysteria. The ado is an example of the media’s ability to wreak havoc in markets, sometimes absolutely unsubstantially,” asserts Grybauskiene. With the news of the spread of the deadly bacteria popping up all over the continent, she maintains credibility of veggie cultivators has been shattered. She, nevertheless, emphasizes that the fallout from the cucumber-crisis will be most evident in the late fall. “By then all vegetable cultures will have been harvested, and we will be able to come up with a more precise estimate,” the LFVTEA representative stressed. She, however, hopes that the worst is over. “The peak of the green crisis was when the Russian Federation proclaimed an embargo on all EU-grown vegetables. It has tremendously ill-affected our market, as most of Lithuania’s vegetable growers export their green commodities to Russia,” Grybauskiene asserted to The Baltic Times.

In addition, she points out, the embargo has created a considerable vegetable surplus in the Lithuanian market. The excessive supply has been useful to local consumers, as vegetables prices, due to the surplus, have substantially fallen. “Facing the dilemma – either keep storing vegetables or try selling them at their prime cost, or even below it – a sheer majority of green farmers have opted for the latter. With hysteria high, farmers experienced a huge loss,” the president said.
When looking over the trends, developing in the aftermath of the cucumber-crisis, she notices that Lithuanian vegetable exporters, particularly those in the Russian market, turn back to the Lithuanian market. “The expectations are that the domestic market will bounce back quicker than the foreign markets,” she says.

Lithuanian green produce exporters have also suffered heavily from the meltdown of the Belarusian ruble, she notes. Because of the adversities in the foreign vegetable markets and the green goods’ surplus in the domestic market, Grybauskiene reiterates, local consumers benefit the most, as both vegetable crop cultivators and the largest food supermarket chains set very low mark-ups for their green goods. The LFVTEA president calls Lithuania a land of “traditional greens.”

“Due to seasonality, Lithuanian farmers grow what suits our climate conditions and land best – tomatoes, cucumbers and potatoes. With their one harvest per year, however, we are not fully able to provide ourselves even with potatoes, leave alone tomatoes and cucumbers,” she says. Some local tomato and cucumber growers, she relates, have considered growing vegetables in hothouses in winter. However, costs of the endeavor turned out to be too high to cling to the project.

Speaking of potatoes, interestingly, some time ago, mostly due to the belief that the potato is an “unhealthy” Soviet-era vegetable, their sales were on decline, but the reasoning has appeared to be more of a temporary fad than a trend.
Zofija Cironkiene, director of Lithuania’s Vegetable Cultivator Association (LVCA), concurs with Grybauskiene on the adverse effects of the overwhelming panic over the E. coli bacteria infection. However, she notices, prior to it, vegetable prices in Lithuania had been generally higher than last year. “The higher prices had slowed down buying of most vegetables,” the LVCA director pointed out. Among the other adverse effects on the domestic veggie market before the E.coli bacteria outbreak, she mentions the continuous surplus of Spanish vegetables. “Because of a heat-wave in Spain in May, the country’s wholesalers had considerably dumped the green production prices in foreign markets, Lithuania included, which has been lately over-supplied with Spanish vegetables. Therefore, the dumped prices had even exacerbated the situation in the Lithuanian market, worsening the plight of Lithuanian veggie growers,” Cironkiene explained.

She estimates that Lithuanian growers’ damage, due to the bacteria outbreak, could be set at roughly two million litas (579,700 euros). “In general, we constantly see a decrease of Lithuanian vegetable farmers lately. It is particularly obvious in the cultivation of vegetables, like certain kinds of cabbages, celery and leek, which need a lot of manual work,” the LVCA director emphasized.

Speaking of the outlook of the Lithuanian green commodities in foreign markets, she points out that “Lithuania does not have clear vegetable-growing technologies. “Though, in terms of green commodity quality, we are in no way worse than Polish vegetable cultivators, when it comes to their shape, we lag behind our foreign competitors. Usually, their vegetables look firmer, healthier and smell better,” Cirtautiene pointed out. “Polish farmers have the edge because of their much more liberal policies regulating fertilization and growing,” the representative of Lithuania’s Vegetable Cultivator Association stressed.

Though the output of “non-traditional” vegetables, like celery and leek, she notes, is on a steep decline on larger farms, small farms, on the contrary, engage eagerly in cultivating them. “It is a niche market for many smaller vegetable farmers,” the LVCA director notices. While buying of all vegetables was in decline, two kinds of veggies - onions and spinach - saw a significant boost in purchasing, up 20-30 and 15-20 percent, respectively, in each category. “It is due to the lack of vegetables in the market. It has reacted strongly to the shortage. Obviously, we see increasing areas of the crops as well,” the association’s representative added.

Interestingly, planted areas of cabbages, another traditional Lithuanian vegetable, keep going down. “The downward trend is due to ever changing nourishment habits. Obviously, we started eating less traditional cabbages, often replacing them with Chinese cabbages or mini cabbages,” Cironkiene said to The Baltic Times.

For many Lithuanian vegetable growers, Russia remains the main export market. The trade volumes with Russia were on a constant growth path in the last two years. However, the director points out, it is not easy to find out the real scope of it. “When I look at the numbers, they, being too big in some categories and fluctuating considerably, just do not look real to me. There is too much ‘overlapping,’ due to re-export, in the statistics. Therefore, I do not want to rely on it,” she stressed.

Nevertheless, she expertly points out that not a vegetable, but a fruit - Lithuanian apples - makes up the bulk of the Russia-bound export. Statistics say that Panevezys County is a clear national leader in hectares of apple gardens: 278 hectares in total, followed by Kaunas County, and Anyksciai, and Vilkaviskis districts at 128, 68 and 47 hectares, respectively.
In terms of area, the black currant is the second most popular garden crop in Lithuania.  Siauliai County takes up the largest area of this kind of fruit, at 700 hectares in total, followed by Kaunas County with 574 hectares. The experts affirm that only large vegetable and fruit growers stand a better chance of competition in the market. Cooperation among Lithuanian vegetable and fruit cultivators is rather weak, which also diminishes the chances in the markets.

Though planting of garden strawberries are considerably less than those of other garden crops like black currant and apple, nevertheless, no fruit can compete with the luring ripe red berry in attracting attention and customers’ wallets in the fruit’s high-season in Lithuania. In the fruit segment, medium and small-sized garden strawberry gardens prevail, as those of 2-5 hectares take up 24 percent of the country’s commercial garden strawberry gardens. Only 6 percent of all garden strawberry gardens are substantial, from 6 to 19 hectares, and 14 fruit farms plant from 5 to 10 hectares.

However, garden strawberry growers can satisfy only a small demand for the berries by locals. “Lithuanian climatic conditions are rather adverse to growing garden strawberries, therefore, we have so many exported berries, the largest bulk of them coming from Poland,” says Grybauskiene. She notes that garden strawberries are very susceptible to cold spells.
“Because of that the berry crops have to be constantly covered to avoid any ill-effect from a frost. It means extra expense, extra work and, ultimately, extra price for customers. With the abundance of imported garden strawberries, local gardeners cannot compete with them,” Grybauskiene emphasized. She notices, however, slowly but steadily increasing garden strawberry plantings in Lithuania.

Local strawberry growers particularly suffered from the lavish berry imports last year, when the local market was overflowing with Polish and Spanish berries. In that sense, this year was relatively better for local garden strawberry growers. “The spring frosts have ill-affected our strawberry gardens, however, it had been much worse in southern Poland, a traditional garden strawberry grower and exporter, where unusually big frosts have severely damaged local garden strawberry crops,” the LFVTEA president pointed out.