Fruit Today talked to Juan Peñalver, an associate in the company Procomel, who is an agricultural engineer and an expert in what is happening in the melon sector.
Faced with a vast offer of varieties, the strategy used by ‘El abuelo’ includes a differentiated flavour line using just three.
Are watermelons still scratching away at melon market share?
Yes, it is still happening. And there is a clear explanation for this, both from a production and from the consumer’s points of view.
The former is explained in terms of yield, since depending on the region, a hectare of watermelons can give between 70-75,000 kilos. A hectare of melons produces between 40-42,000 kilos and in La Mancha, with standard quality, 50,000 kilos can be reached. In short, the unit cost per piece is always more expensive for melons.
For consumers, watermelons are fruit with a uniform flavour and this is due to the fact that with just 2 varieties, from Fashion to Style, the entire campaign can be covered from Almeria to Castilla-La Mancha. And added to this is the seedless factor. For too many years, slicing a melon open has meant a surprise, and not always a good one. Furthermore, from the commercial point of view, watermelons are a well-known, popular product for eating in Europe in the summer heat.
What are the estimates for plantations in Murcia this year?
As a result of a continuous series of bad campaigns, we will have a reduction of between 15 and 20% in surface area for Piel de Sapo and approximately the same for Galia and Cantaloupe melons.
You have been critical about the overwhelming amount of new varieties that the seed companies display every year
I understand the work of these professionals perfectly, but amongst all of us we have taken the sector to a point where consumers no longer know what they are going to find when they buy a melon. In the same week, in Campo de Cartagena, you can find up to 10 or 15 varieties, and each one has its own flavour.
Should we be concerned about this situation? How should we carry on?
Personally, the large amount of varieties that in general bring nothing new worries me – and I have stated this publicly. I think it would be good for the sector to move on to only having two or three lines, no more.
It is a complicated situation, but at Procomel we have faced up to this in the way we believed we should. We reached a research agreement with a medium-sized seed company to cultivate just three varieties. This meant a significant investment, but also a very important move forward. We know that there are fields that can give a top brand and others that give a standard one, but both taste the same. This is the only way to not confuse consumers, who also recognise our brand. In fact, our goal over the next few years includes having the same varieties in Murcia, Brazil and Senegal.
But this is easier said than done.
No, of course. When a company only markets, just buying and selling, it is a complicated task, but, in our case, we produce for our warehouse, we test, and we know what our clients are asking for. We maintain a chain of knowledge from the fields to the clients and we demand the flavour we need from the geneticists. The production cost of this seed is much higher, but it is worth it. We prefer this more expensive type of farming, with less yield, but a uniform flavour. Our varieties last months and they are planted both in Murcia and in La Mancha. This is our work model because the programmes are designed exclusively for us.
How have the imports from Senegal behaved during the confinement?
When the state of alarm started, we still had 200 hectares of melon and a large amount of watermelons. There were some consumption problems to begin with for the melons, but this recovered later on. Watermelons were affected to a much larger degree because cut fruit stopped being sold in the supermarkets and the restaurants were closed. We had to leave a large part of the harvest there.
In general, we didn’t have any logistical problems and the ships kept arriving. In Senegal, a curfew was decreed, but our people decided to stay until the end of the campaign, for which we are deeply grateful. The moment the season ended, they had a plane to bring them back.
Will ’El Abuelo’ have more grandchildren?
Of course, the family will grow. We already have advanced projects in yellow melons, which will have good flavour and will be easy to recognise due to their little green spots.
How is Matisse working?
Very well. It is giving very good results due to its flavour and its peculiar appearance, and we already have some very interesting programmes for some European supermarkets.
Are Piel de Sapo melons continuing to penetrate the European market?
Not as much as we could wish for, but every year Procomel is selling more in Germany, England and Switzerland. It is true that the sizes are different for each market, but a melon of around 2.5 kilos is well received (calibre 5), although no larger than this.