Not long ago, Poland was the largest apple exporter in Europe. But since the 2014 retaliatory embargo imposed on some Polish foodstuffs by Russia, exports have plummeted, as Jo Harper reports from Warsaw.
The United States cajoled its European allies into applying a variety of economic sanctions on Russian businesses and individuals after Russia annexed Crimea in early 2014. In tit-for-tat retaliation, Russia imposed a ban on agricultural imports from Europe.
Two years on, some Polish producers would like to see the EU lift its sanctions on Russia, adding their voices to those of business interests in France and Austria, among other EU countries.
Poland's government is virulently anti-Russian, however, and is keen to bolster the impression that the potential for Russian aggression necessitates greater NATO presence on the alliance's eastern flank. It wants sanctions to stay in place, whether they hit Polish apple exporters or not.
Apples through the backdoor
For a while, Polish apple producers managed to sell apples to Russia despite the sanctions, thanks to re-exports through third countries, Belarus in particular, and also via Crimea and Ukraine. The latter become a major export market for Polish exporters.
Some Russian wholesalers were reportedly still actively buying Polish apples as recently as April 2016 despite the sanctions. But not any more, it seems. Russia has now banned some imports of foodstuffs from Ukraine, and tougher customs control systems have been imposed on products from Belarus.
In mid-May, Russian authorities reportedly destroyed 19.5 tons of apples from Poland in the Smolensk Oblast. A statement from Russia's Federal Agency for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance said a truck transporting Polish apples had been detained on the border between Belarus and Russia. The truck turned out to belong to a Belarusian company. All the goods were confiscated and sent for disposal.
"The embargo on trade in goods with Russia, including fresh fruits like apples, has had no political effects, but the consequences of it are being borne by Polish growers. This sadly also exposes the weakness of Polish horticulture - low quality fruit and poor selection. We also have overproduction of fruit, which means the retail price of apples does not even cover the cost of production. Therefore, many growers are changing their production profiles by planting other fruits, pears or raspberries," says Agnieszka Jaworska, owner of an apple orchard south of Warsaw.
Russian customers will not encounter Polish apples in regular shops because of the sanctions in place
Apple sales fall
Poland, which over the past two years has dropped to third place from its previous ranking as the world's largest apple exporter, may find it hard to recover its leadership role in the international market, industry experts believe.
The largest exporter of apples in the 2012/2013 season, Poland has since been outpaced by Italy and the United States, figures from Eurostat and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) show.
Shipping rates declined by 18 percent in the years 2014-2015, with the biggest blow dealt by Russia's ban on fruit imports from the European Union.
"The export of Polish apples to countries beyond the [Russian-dominated] Commonwealth of Independent States and the EU is on the rise, but it will take a long time before new markets compensate for the losses incurred by the Russian embargo," Bozena Nosecka from the Institute of Agricultural and Food Economics in Warsaw said.
Along with selling its apples in the domestic market, the sector has expanded the number of countries it sells to. It has expanded into Asia, in particular Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong, India and Malaysia, and also Africa, mainly Egypt.
But Poland's apple trade does not appear to have overcome the perception that apples are not really suited to the international market.
The president of Poland's National Fruit & Vegetable Producers Association, Witold Boguta, recently bemoaned the country's lack of alternative markets for export items, including apples, suggesting that only 10-15 percent of the country's apple varieties were suitable for new markets.
The Chinese and Polish government have agreed to allow Polish apples to be exported into China, but no shipments have yet been made. Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to visit Poland in June to sign a formal agreement launching Polish apple exports to his country, with the first shipments expected in September.
"All import procedures have been finished successfully. We are now waiting for the government to say that it is OK to start," says Henry Wang from the Fujian Oumeng Import and Export Trade.
There is a direct rail connection between the cities of Lodz in Poland and Chengdu in western China, with transport taking two weeks.
Domestic consumption not compensating
Consumption of apples in Poland has been falling over the past decade, with average annual consumption in the period between 2004 and 2014 down 33 percent to 14.04 kg/person. Industry experts suggest the main reason for this was the rise in popularity of imported fruits like bananas.
The decline slowed for a while, according to a report titled "Changes in preferences of Poles in the field of food consumption" by BGZ Bank BNP Paribas. But then it continued to pick up speed.
In 2014, the main factor fueling growth in the consumption of apples was the intense promotional campaign associated with the introduction of the Russian embargo. Another factor was price, with the retail price of apples 11 percent lower than in the previous year.
According to new figures published by the World Apple & Pear Association (WAPA), Polish apple stocks in March 2016 were 11 percent higher than at the same point last year, leaving 804,000 tons of the fruit left to be sold. This unwanted record for Poland's apple business is one that it will take a lot of bites to overcome.