Sour cherry season as a chance for student summer job: the case of Fruktana
June and July are traditionally the busiest months for Fruktana, a fruit and vegetable processing company from the village of Argulica near Shtip. Known as the sour cherry season, this is the time when Fruktana sources fresh sour cherries from more than 50 local growers. After processing, Fruktana sell the pitted and frozen sour cherries in the EU and other European countries, Russia, Canada, and New Zealand. Besides frozen products, the company’s sales portfolio offers other processed cherries products such as cheeries in alcohol (used for cherry chocolates), pasteurized cherries in tins, and sour cherry syrup. Traditionally, this is also the period when Fruktana’s processing facilities are filled with young people – high school and university students from the Shtip surroundings, who decide to spend part of their summer school break as seasonal workers.
Similarly to European and global trends in the decline of (seasonal) agri workers, the challenge is present to Macedonian agribusinesses, too. In the search for seasonal workers, 10 years ago Fruktana started recruiting young people from the region to fill the gap.
“Since the sour cherry processing season overlaps with the school and uni summer break, we started sharing summer job ads in secondary schools and universities in Shtip. We have been having around 100-120 university or high school students joining every year for a month. Young seasonal workers are a significant helping hand in the busiest 30 days of the year. For them, this is an invaluable early work experience and a chance to earn some extra income. So, basically it is a win-win situation.” explains Goran Mitev, sales manager of Fruktana.
A big portion of the work is not heavy-labor i.e includes semi-automated processes such as pitting, sorting, and calibrating of sour cherries, and both young females and males are welcomed to apply. According to the national Law on Employment, candidates need to be over 16 years of age and to possess a valid ID to be hired as seasonal workers. Fruktana registers the young seasonal workers through the National Employment Agency and covers all applicable benefits such as social security and health insurance. They also provide brief practical training to introduce them to work assignments and safety at the workplace.
Some of the students keep returning for seasonal work several summers in a row. Dragana Kostadinova, a young lady from Karbinci who first joined Fruktana for a summer job at the age of 16, is now a full-time employee there. “The few summers of work with Fruktana helped me gain (self) confidence and competence. Later on, it also helped a lot during my studies at the Faculty of Agriculture in Shtip, as I was among the few university students coming with previous practical experience.” shared Dragana. Upon graduation, she returned to her home village and now works as a lab technician for Fruktana. She is responsible for production analysis, as well as product and packing quality control.
Fruktana was established in 2000, and they have modern processing facilities. In addition to sour cherries processing, the company also provides freezing services of peppers and fruits for other companies. Fruktana’s aim is to start freezing their own peppers and introduce this as a new product in their product range. To achieve this, they needed support to co-invest in suitable machines and received support through IME’s Opportunity Fund instrument.
“With IME’s co-funding, we acquired a machine for automatic unloading of plastic bins for peppers, a closed elevator to move the peppers from the precooling tunnel to the freezing tunnel, and an evaporative condenser. The machines have recently arrived, they are being installed and this autumn we will start processing and freezing our own peppers, too.”, adds Mitev
These machines are a precondition for the company to get the International Food Standard (IFS) of food safety and quality and sustain the existing ISO 22000. With this investment, the quality of products will significantly improve, as the cross-contamination in the production line will be reduced. Fruktana plans to sell the peppers to the export markets where they sell cherries, but also to expand to Greece, Poland, Germany, Belgium, and Netherlands. At Fruktana, nothing goes to waste. Sour cherry pits are dried and then sold as burning fuel. They are an excellent alternative biomass fuel because they burn hotter and cleaner than wood pellets and many other biomass fuels.
“This new investment and portfolio expansion will enable us to increase our sales, cooperate with more local farmers, and employ more seasonal and full-time workers” Mitev concludes. In addition to this, Fruktana’s efforts to engage young people in the food processing activities can be adopted by other agribusinesses as a way to keep young generations within the sector, improve the quality of rural employment, and encourage new entrants to take up or set up their own businesses.