Business is blooming

Summary

There are some sights you just have to see for yourself, when leafing through your neighbour’s snaps on Flickr is simply not good enough. The Haspengouw in April is one of them.

Spring
 
Spring

April in south Limburg means a riot of colour and a burst of tourism

There are some sights you just have to see for yourself, when leafing through your neighbour’s snaps on Flickr is simply not good enough. The Haspengouw in April is one of them.

For a few weeks each year, this area in the south of Limburg province is a sea of pink and white, as millions of fruit trees burst into blossom simultaneously. This beautiful spectacle draws visitors from all over Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Germany.

 

Being a well-oiled tourist machine, Limburg makes sure that when all those euro-carrying visitors come to admire the blossom, they’ll find other reasons to stay awhile. The possibilities, indeed, are endless.

 

You can go on specially-devised walks, cycle rides or car journeys through the most abundant orchards. You can enjoy guided tours around fruit farms and fruit auctions. You can visit companies that liquidise, preserve and bottle fruit. You can walk round fruit museums, stare at fruit art, visit fruit exhibitions, or order a romantic fruit picnic for two under the trees. You can even go on a nocturnal stroll through a candle-lit fruit orchard.

 

In short, from Sint-Truiden to Borgloon, Gingelom to Nieuwekerken, Heers to Kortessem, and in every tiny village in between, April in the Haspengouw means one thing: it’s blossom time.

 

 

The local and international success of the Haspengouw fruit industry is a combination of science and soul. A little history will help you more fully appreciate the secret.

 

There are two main reasons behind the Haspengouw’s outstanding quality of fruit. The first is its deep layer of loam resting on a bed of clay. The resulting soil retains its moisture content, making it ideal for growing fruit trees. The second is the tradition of fruit growing that has been passed down through many generations of farm families.

 

Throughout Belgium, some 8,000 hectares of land are dedicated to the cultivation of apple trees. Last year, for the first time ever, slightly more land was devoted to the cultivation of pears than apples – around 8,200 hectares. Cherry orchards take up less ground, but it’s still a significant 1,200 hectares. Nearly two-thirds of these orchards –apple, pear and cherry – are concentrated in the Haspengouw.

 

Changing the face of fruit

Fruit from the region was already being exported to Germany and England in the 19th century. In the 1920s, fruit growers realised that by joining forces in local co-operatives, they could obtain better prices. After the Second World War, the idea really took off with the creation of co-operative fruit auctions, which have the interests of fruit growers at heart and try to get them the best price for their products. Of course, this price also depends on factors such as supply and demand, the market in general and the time of year.

 

The Belgian Fruit Auction (BFV), headquartered in Sint-Truiden, is the largest cooperation of fruit growers in the country, with a market share of 50% and more than 1,000 farmers on its books. In 2008, 197 million kilograms of fruit passed through BFV’s hands, 97% being apples and pears.

 

The fruit auction also stores fruit so that it can be offered to consumers at the most appropriate time. Fruit is stored in huge cold rooms in Ultra Low Oxygen (ULO), with temperature, oxygen and CO2 levels set in a balanced combination to halt the fruit’s ageing process. The BFV stores 50 million kilograms of apples and pears, which can be preserved for a whole year without a loss in quality.

 

Haspengouw’s fruit farmers are noted for their pioneering spirit. As far back as the 1930s, they were experimenting with traditional orchard structure – moving from mature, tall, widely spaced trees to short-lived dwarf trees that were planted in high-density rows and managed intensively.

 

Hello, Jonagold

Now, the work of growing new trees and developing new fruit varieties is left to specialist nurseries. One of these is Johan Nicolaï NV from Sint-Truiden.

 

The name Nicolaï holds a special place on Flemish fruit farms. In 1969, Jo Nicolaï came back from the United States with a new two-coloured apple variety: the Jonagold. Just when the crisis over poor quality Golden Delicious was threatening to damage the fruit industry, the Jonagold revitalised it.

 

The Jonagold family now accounts for more than 60% of the total number of apple trees grown in the Haspengouw and Nicolaï continues to provide high-quality fruit trees for growers in the Haspengouw and beyond. “We produce and sell around one million trees per year,” says the company’s chief researcher Paul Van Laer.

 

The farm is also committed to developing new varieties with improved characteristics, which is essential to give consumers a wider choice and new tastes. It also enables varieties to be developed that are more resistant to diseases and pests and, therefore, less reliant on chemicals.

 

Nicolaï started working with the Laboratory for Fruit Breeding and Biotechnology of the Catholic University of Leuven in 1988, and in 2000 established the independent fruit breeding company Better3Fruit. Two of Better3Fruit’s new varieties are already in the shops: Kanzi and Greenstar.

 

“We created Kanzi by crossing Gala and Braeburn,” explains Van Laer. “It’s a very tasty, crispy and juicy apple, with a distinctive smooth skin and uniform pink-red colour.” The company already has four and half million Kanzi trees in the ground.

 

Fruit growing these days is a highly complex and technical occupation. Providing valuable scientific support to fruit growers is the research centre pcfruit vzw, based just outside Sint-Truiden. “We carry out applied scientific research and experimental research and collect and disseminate information,” says Jef Vercammen, who heads up a department that experiments with pome and stone fruits.

 

A key phrase heard in the corridors of pcfruit is “integrated pest management”, which involves using a variety of complementary strategies to control bugs. “A major focus of pcfruit is looking at how natural biological processes and materials can control pests with minimal environmental impact,” says Vercammen.

 

One surprising example is a research project looking at how to encourage earwigs, which can help control pests such as aphids and psyllids (jumping plant lice). Another is using yeast to control fruit rot on apples and pears.

 

www.pcfruit.be

 

Join the party

Ten ways to explore the Haspengouw now

 

1 Fruit lounge

In the middle of the Haspengouw, enjoy a comfy chair, relaxing music, a fruity cocktail and a gorgeous view over the orchards from the fruit lounge. It’s only accessible by bike or on foot. Open every (dry) day from 11.00 to 17.00 at Den Heulen Gracht, Peereleerestraat, Velm

2 Fruit farm

Every day in April various fruit farms in Sint-Truiden, Borgloon and Heers are open to the public

 

3 Fruit auction

Three fruit auctions in Borgloon and Sint-Truiden are open to the public every Tuesday and Thursday in April. Guided tours start at 10.00

 

4 Blossom bus

Every day in April a bus leaves Sint-Truiden market square at 14.00 and takes you on a three-hour trip to a variety of fruity sites

 

5 Blossom blessing

On 26 April, 13.00, Guvelingen church, Diesteresteenweg, Sint-Truiden, followed by a concert and procession

 

6 Romantic picnic

Book a picnic knapsack and discover your own romantic spot under the shade of a fruit tree

 

7 Nocturnal walk

Enjoy a candle-lit stroll through the orchards of Porrey’s fruit farm, Truilingenstraat 2, Kerkom from 20.00 on 22 and 29 April

8 Taxi bike

Cuddle up with your partner in the back of a taxi bike and let your guide do the hard work on a two-hour trip through the orchards

 

9 Bugs (the good kind)

Enjoy a little nostalgia by seeing the Haspengouw from behind the steering wheel of an old VW Bug (www.herbietours.be)

 

10 Vespas (also good)

Hire a Vespa for a day and feel the wind in your hair as you buzz along the country lanes in the Haspengouw (www.vesparoute.com).

If you want to explore the Haspengouw on your own, the tourist office in the centre of Sint-Truiden has all the walking, cycling and motoring maps you might need

 

www.bloesemfeesten-haspengouw.be

 

 

 

 

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