Farming is an innately labour-intensive industry. With the advent of greenhouse technology leading to increased yields and better quality crops, labour has remained just as essential. It seems only natural, then, that labour is one of the industry’s greatest challenges.
This challenge stems from several factors and applies to all aspects of labour management: from unskilled general labour all the way up to senior management. The greenhouse industry (especially here in Southern Ontario) has been notorious for its use of labourers sourced from abroad. It may seem like a cop-out to try and get cheap labour – but in fact they cost more to hire (transportation and accommodation are provided) and are paid well above the minimum wage.
This issue does not end at the greenhouse doors. Companies are having issues finding management-level employees as well. The greenhouse industry is not everyone’s first thought when an innovative multi-million-dollar enterprise is brought up.
Universities are producing herds of well educated individuals waving CVs looking for work, yet none of them seem to be pointing them towards this sector. How is it that one of Canada’s most dynamic, fastest growing and innovative industries is lacking applicants? Farms are working double time just to meet their obligations.
I myself was no different. I grew up and completed a bachelor’s and master’s degree 50 km from the largest high-tech greenhouse cluster in North America. Not once did it even cross my mind to consider working there: and it’s this very fact which manifests the struggle greenhouse growers are facing today.
How do we get young, determined, hard-working individuals with a drive to make an impact, attracted to working in greenhouses? How do we highlight that this is a rewarding, passionate and exciting long-term career that requires engineers and scientists and labourers alike? Partnerships with universities are integral aspects of fostering talent acquisition. NatureFresh* is establishing programmes with universities to bring students in on co-op like terms, exposing them to the cutting-edge technology and get them excited about careers in horticulture.
I’m writing my first column for In Greenhouses sitting in the departure lounge at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. The reason for my three-day trip to the Netherlands was a joyous one: our daughter Wendy turned 30 yesterday, and as her proud father, naturally I had to be there. All the children and grandchildren were there this afternoon, and now I’m already on my way back to South Africa.
South Africa has been our home since 2014. After many years of travelling and deliberating, we ultimately decided to follow our dream: to be there for the people of Africa. We live and work in South Africa. Anne, my wife, is involved in development work for disadvantaged children, and I am a consultant for Delphy specialising in covered vegetable growing in eastern and southern Africa. Basically that means advising and training people in safe food production to enable them to create jobs and produce safer food.
Horticulture, and in particular covered crop production, has been gaining rapidly in significance in Africa in recent years. There are many reasons for this, with water shortages topping the list. As many people are aware nowadays, it takes five times less water to grow a kilogram of tomatoes in a greenhouse or tunnel than it does in the open air. Protection against wind and rain and keeping pests out are other reasons for growing crops under cover.
It’s much easier to grow food safely and sustainably under cover. Funnily enough, it has mainly been private initiatives and not government ones that have set this movement in motion here. Supermarket chains like Woolworths have been setting the trend for years with the Farming for the Future programme. As a result, growing in an environmentally sound way now tends to be the rule rather than the exception for modern GlobalGAP certified growers. But there are still a lot of smallholder farmers growing for the wholesale markets where certification is not yet a requirement, although it is a USP for them. In my next column I will be looking at how this works in practice and what role I can play in it myself.
Senior Consultant Africa
For (European) sport enthusiasts 2016 was a great year: UEFA Euro 2016, the Tour de France and the Olympic Games. From the Dutch perspective there is a striking similarity between the sports world and the greenhouse construction and engineering sector.
Why, for example, are projects being set up overseas where no Dutch companies – just like the European football championship – are involved, even though a number of the Dutch players belong to the world’s top? Or compare the Dutch Olympic team with the numerous links required, wherever it is in the world, to profitably realise a greenhouse. The best companies are selected and every participant is expected to do his or her utmost best to win a gold medal. Some however believe that just flying there is enough to gain a medal.
But just like in sport for every project it’s the end result that counts. Consider Rio, not everything runs smoothly for some participants and so it’s others who actually collect the medals. But does it really matter if in the end the whole team lives up to the expectations?
This is how it should be for horticultural projects. If Dutch companies want to continue playing an important role, then they need to present a joint calling card, for every project, each time again. Let everyone see that we deserve the gold medal. This can ensure that the customer won’t notice if someone falls off the high bar or isn’t quite fast enough in the hundred metres sprint. So long as the end result fulfils the expectations, everyone will be asking: how can such a small country achieve so much.
We like to talk about innovation. I still believe that the best innovation at the moment is for companies in the sector to learn to work together, so that the customer won’t notice if something goes wrong with one of the components. When the project is complete present the joint business card for the customer to save and use when he is ready for the next stage.
With the creation of Holland Horti International the Dutch sector hopes it has taken a step in bringing companies closer together so that they can work better together to achieve great projects. Of course, it’s the people within the companies that need to make this happen.
The Swiss start-up Climeworks is developing a system that extracts CO2 out of the air for greenhouse horticulture purposes. The system will be tested during a three-year pilot and should be able to capture some 2 to 3 tons of CO2 on a daily basis. This will be piped to a nearby greenhouse to boost the growth of lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes, according to New Scientist magazine.
The system, called Direct Air Capture (DAC), captures air in closed spaces, such as submarines and space capsules. The captured ambient air is pushed through a fibrous sponge-like filter material that has been impregnated with chemicals derived from ammonia. Once the filter is saturated, the gas will be released by warming it with the heat which is in this case generated by a nearby municipal waste incineration plant. The CO2 thus released is then piped to a 4-hectare greenhouse.
According to calculations made by the American Physical Society the cost of capturing CO2 on this scale would be 600 dollars a ton, says Climeworks COO Dominique Kronenberg. The Swiss start-up also expects to equal that and eventually get costs down well below that. At that price, taking C02 out of the air is more expensive than removing it from the flue gases of industrial facilities and power plants, where the gas is up to 300 times more concentrated.
Despite the high price, Kronenberg notes the many advantages to the DAC process. ‘The advantage of taking it out of the ambient air is that it can be done no matter where you are on the planet. We are not dependent on a source of CO2, so neither will we need to make high costs to transport the CO2 to the greenhouses.’ Climeworks will be using funding from the Swiss Federal Office of Energy to fine-tune the system. The objective of the three-year pilot period is to make the system run more cheaply and efficiently and, in doing so, enable the company to gain a solid foot on the market.
Although they only started growing fresh algae commercially less than a year ago, Hendrik Staarink and his partner Stefano Canziani are fully confident about the future of their business, which they called Algreen. ‘Algae are the vegetables for the future.’
Starink started his studies in Agricultural Water Management at Wageningen University in 2008 and conducted the research for his final project near the Oosterschelde tidal basin in the province of Zeeland. A few visits to crustacean and seaweed farms further kindled his enthusiasm about algae. After reading several books on the cultivation of algae that summer the ball started rolling rapidly.
"We saw some excellent commercial opportunities, taking into account the high prices paid these days for Spirulina algae."
While he was at university he met Stefano, who was studying biotechnology and shared his fascination for algae. ‘We visited algae farms in France together. These are commercial farms, but they were very open about what they were doing. We studied their cultivation system, which they call raceway ponds. Almost all commercial algae are grown in raceways these days. We saw some excellent commercial opportunities, taking into account the high prices paid these days for Spirulina algae. So, we decided to try our hand at this, too!’
‘We first grew Spirulina on an experimental scale in 2014, which marked our first step out of the lab. A great deal of research has been done on the cultivation of Spirulina and we worked with tested techniques and a type of algae that was adapted to the climate in the Netherlands. As a result, we started production on a bigger scale in 2015. We now have an office in Wageningen and grow our algae on a nearby cultivation site.’
"We are directing our sales primarily at the market for healthy juices and good restaurants."
Spirulina is primarily eaten on account of its relatively high protein content. ‘I would like to call it a superfood, but that applies to other vegetables as well. To me, it’s a very special vegetable.’ Spirulina is also chock-full of easily absorbed protein, is an important source of vitamins (e.b. potassium), minerals (particularly iron) and antioxidants (phycocyanine). As a result, it can easily be included in a healthy diet.
Who will be buying your fresh algae?
‘One of our first steps was to conduct market research. We discovered that the market is growing, and that our product is healthy, not too expensive and has numerous uses. You can put it in virtually everything. Many people eat it as a dietary supplement. We are directing our sales primarily at the market for healthy juices and good restaurants. We are a supplier to various small-scale juice bars and shops in Amsterdam. Businesses like that often use powdered Spirulina, and are now replacing this with our product. They tell me that it tastes much better.’
Why do you consider algae to be the vegetable of the future?
‘Because it’s such an easy crop to grow! Harvesting is simple: there’s nothing that needs to be picked or cut. Also, the cultivation of algae can easily be automated and up or downscaled. You don’t need a lot of energy; just a little sunlight. We produce our algae in an unheated greenhouse. Also, we don’t use any crop protection agents. Algae have few requirements with regard to the quality of water (salt content) and don’t emit any greenhouse gases. It’s a very sustainable crop.’
"We distinguish ourselves from the competition by offering a product that is not only fresh, but also sustainably grown."
‘In a conventional greenhouse you need ventilation, which we have no need for. We already apply the principles of Next Generation Cultivation. You see a lot of technology applied to algae that look very interesting on paper, but that are simply not feasible from a commercial perspective. We keep it as simple as possible and make it as complex as necessary. We distinguish ourselves from the competition by offering a product that is not only fresh, but also sustainably grown.’ By offering the algae while they are fresh they not only taste better, but also retain more of their nutrient content, adds Starink. ‘Plus, it cuts costs, because drying the algae requires extra energy.’
Will every grower with access to a tank of salt water be able to grow algae in the future?
‘It’s not quite that simple. Growing algae requires a certain degree of craftsmanship. There’s actually a lot you need to know about: cultivation, certification, biological testing, microscopic testing, harvesting, processing, and so on. We studied the entire process in minute detail. In addition to that, we optimised the cultivation conditions for our algae. We prepare our own nutrient mix. Still, what we do can easily be compared to what other commercial growers of vegetables do.’
"If you operate on a large enough scale you should be able to produce algae profitably in the Netherlands with the variety we developed."
When asked what his production yield is, Starink keeps silent. ‘Even in a cold greenhouse we can earn a little. However, cultivation at this scale takes a lot of labour, relatively speaking. If you operate on a large enough scale you should be able to produce algae profitably in the Netherlands with the variety we developed. We grow an adapted Spirulina variety obtained through selection.’
What will your next step be?
‘Our next challenge is to start operating on a larger scale, cultivation-wise. We would like a bigger greenhouse, preferably with residual heat, to eliminate our winter dip in production. Our most serious competitors are producers of dried algae. We can say that our product is better, but if our fresh algae will become much more expensive, we will be fighting a tough battle,’ explains Starink.
"There is a lot left to discover in the underwater cultivation of vegetables."
‘We are also engaged in expanding our product range. There is a lot left to discover in the underwater cultivation of vegetables. Additionally, our customers keep asking for more varieties of healthy and tasty algae. We are currently busy developing an exceptionally tasty variety of seaweed (a type of macro-algae) and keep our knowledge and expertise about micro-algae up to date through projects like the ‘Luteine 2.0’ project, which won us a prize from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). We are currently speaking to investors to enable the business to continue growing and so that more people will be able to enjoy locally grown, super-fresh algae produced by Algreen in the future.’
Key points for attention in the online sale of fruit and vegetables are quality and food safety. Another factor to take into consideration is packaging. Can standardised packaging guarantee the desired product quality, food safety and customer experience standards?
Although no specific rules apply to online sales - as opposed to traditional sales methods - online sales channels will need to observe the same quality and food safety regulations as other food suppliers. ‘Food safety is a priority issue,’ says Nicolette Quaedvlieg, policy officer for Quality & Food Safety at het GroentenFruit Huis.
'People are less disappointed when they pick up a product at the supermarket with a quality defect than if they had bought the same product with the same quality issues online.'
She also believes that the quality of online products should be better than what is offered by supermarkets. ‘You have to take it one step further. People are less disappointed when they pick up a product at the supermarket with a quality defect than if they had bought the same product with the same quality issues online. That’s simply not acceptable to them.’ Additionally, Quaedvlieg points out that consumers purchasing produce online need information about the product’s country of origin. Online sales platforms are also required - just as shops and restaurants - to provide information about allergens, both on their websites and upon delivery to the customer.
Martijn van Andel of JEM-id is also convinced that consumers should get the best possible quality when they order something online. ‘And that’s possible, because you leave out several links in the distribution chain. Going grocery shopping three times a week is actually ridiculous, since 90% of the products you buy are identical. Neither is grocery shopping a particularly interesting experience. There are few people who genuinely enjoy shopping for groceries.’
'Consistency in quality and freshness is only possible through short lines and foolproof chain cooperation with preferably local suppliers.'
Harrij Schmeitz of the Fresh Informationmanagement Center emphasises that the quality of online groceries not only needs to be good; it must also be consistent. ‘The consumer must not be disappointed. If consumers fail to find the quality they seek online, you will lose them and they will purchase their products elsewhere.’ Consistency in quality and freshness is, according to Machiel Reinders, senior researcher at LEI Wageningen University Research Centre, only possible through short lines and foolproof chain cooperation with preferably local suppliers. ‘Good customer service is also of paramount importance.’
The range of packaging currently available can only partially guarantee the desired standard of quality and consumer experience, says Reinders. He indicates that there is a demand for better packaging, particularly for more delicate products. ‘Special packaging is also needed for the cooled transport of products. PostNL has conducted several experiments with Vershuys.com, for example, in which they explored the possibility of using special coolers for the shipment of fresh food products.’
'The range of packaging currently available can only partially guarantee the desired standard of quality and consumer experience.'
The researcher also points out that packaging can also enhance consumer experience through the addition of supplementary information, or visual materials, for example. ‘On the other hand, one of the trends in modern society is to desire to curb the amount of packaging waste. To put it briefly, there are still plenty of opportunities for innovation in the field of packaging fir the online market. This is one of the issues on which the Fresh ONLINE Pack project will be focusing in the next few years to come.’
Text: Tuinbouwteksten.nl/Ank van Lier. Photo: HelloFresh.com
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‘Of course we export. Out of all the greenhouses in the world, you can be assured that 80 per cent have their origins in the Netherlands and that we are involved in a large number of these.’ Greenhow is interviewing Bert Strikkers, co-director of Alumat Zeeman.
Bert was recently appointed to the managing board in order to boost Alumat Zeeman’s export figures. ‘We have noted that the agriculture and horticulture industries have been undergoing increasing international development. It is our ambition be among the top three global players in the field of parts and systems for greenhouses within the next five years.’
‘Our strength lies in our ability to turn our hand at pretty much everything. We produce primarily smaller series, tailored entirely to the end customer’s requirements.’
The appointment of Bert Strikkers to the management board will enable his co-director, Hans Zeeman (currently the third generation Zeeman at the helm) to concentrate more on the production facilities. Various greenhouse parts, up to and including complete systems for greenhouse screens and air control systems, are produced according to custom specifications at the company’s state-of-the-art factory. ‘Our strength lies in our ability to turn our hand at pretty much everything. We produce primarily smaller series, tailored entirely to the end customer’s requirements.’
‘When it comes to sales, you can choose largely between two strategies: you can either become a supplier to greenhouse builders in the Westland region or you can focus more narrowly on supplying the installers and customers at the end of the chain. ‘In the former case, you have to be an absolute cost leader with as little overhead as possible or, in other words, produce things as cheaply as possible. There’s nothing wrong with this strategy, but our strength clearly lies in the delivery of added value by offering our international customers precisely the right quality, service and expertise,’ explains Strikkers. ‘This means that we to keep abreast of all international horticulture projects.’
How can you do that as a small organisation?‘
To be able to answer this question, we will first have to examine the international role played by the horticulture industry in the Westland region. Nowhere in the world is there such a dense concentration of horticulture business, as well as suppliers specialised in this industry. Not only we know this; the rest of the world is also aware of it. A new greenhouse is a huge investment to which the owner is bound for at least the next fifteen years to come.
‘Because of the scope of the investment and the image of the Westland region chances are big that a prospective investor will approach one of the horticulture firms here for information first. Some foreign companies even spend an entire week here to visit several suppliers on order to gain a better impression of the latest technical developments. This is possible thanks to the dense geographical concentration of horticulture firms here; you will find everything there is to know in the field of horticulture technology within a fifty-kilometre radius.’
‘Most people are simply not aware of the magnitude of an investment in greenhouse horticulture; all they see is the glass exterior. Half the costs, however, are associated with the many systems needed for the optimum cultivation of your crops. This means that to build a single greenhouse you may have to request, either directly or indirectly, hundreds of quotations for each of the various parts and systems. A large portion of these quotations are directed at companies operating in the Westland region and, through our network, we always get the latest scoop on what’s going on. We are often introduced to clients as well: if a client has a specific request and the relevant supplier can’t meet this demand, the supplier will generally refer him to someone else - which is often us. Of course, we do the same. However, although we consider the sky to be the limit, we prefer to stick to only those areas in which we excel.’
‘End customers are ordering their systems directly more and more often, simply because they understand that every intermediary link raises the price.’
Strikkers continues: ‘We would rather make a customer happy by referring him to another party than straining to act as an intermediary. This is a clear a trend emerging in the international business world. ‘End customers are ordering their systems directly more and more often, simply because they understand that every intermediary link raises the price. This is a favourable development for us, particularly for the parts division.’
‘Of course, our network extends far beyond the Westland region alone. We visit many trade fairs all over the world every year. Although we don’t have our own stand at these fairs, we are very well acquainted with our Dutch colleagues. Believe me, if an Israeli customer wants to build a greenhouse, he will undoubtedly end up at the Dutch pavilion and we will learn about it through our network.
‘To get back to your question about how we conduct our export business: our export strategy consists in part of making optimum use of the image the rest of the world has of the Westland region and by deploying all of our contacts both here and in the rest of the world. After all, having a business that has never once gone bankrupt since it was founded in1928 puts us in a privileged position. That may not sound all that impressive, but in the small world that is the horticulture industry that means that in all of 85 years we have never disappointed a customer with a project that was not completed or a supplier with an unpaid bill. This gives us confidence.’
‘Command of the English language is particularly poor in France and Spain. If you’re able to approach a customer in his own language you are at a considerable advantage.’
‘Speaking of confidence, everyone in the Netherlands likes to talk about giving and taking. Nevertheless, in the world of international sales the focus more on giving and receiving. Being in the position of the seller, it’s never a question of taking anything from your customer. You have to have confidence in the expectation that your customer will be willing to give you something, that you will be granted an order. Bert, for example, speaks five languages, which is indispensable if you want to build up a good business relationship with a foreign customer. Command of the English language is particularly poor in France and Spain. If you’re able to approach a customer in his own language you are at a considerable advantage on the competition.
‘In summary, our strategy to enter into commercial negotiations has brought us a lot of success in the horticulture niche. With regard to our products, we aim to maintain our focus on flexibility and custom work, while experimenting with new methods and technologies. Our primary aim in this is to automate the process to the greatest extent possible.’ The company clearly employs a two-pronged policy.
Has this always been the case at Alumat Zeeman?
‘No, not at all,’ Hans Zeeman confirms with a grin. ‘The company was actually founded purely by accident. My grandfather was a fisherman and he came home after three months at sea to discover that his son had been born while he was away. He was so upset that he had been absent during the birth that he immediately sought work on land. He started a maintenance firm for greenhouses and, because he was sometimes unable to work because it was either too cold or too hot, his activities gradually shifted to the sale and production of parts. After all, when you work in a big warehouse, you aren’t bothered as much by weather conditions. That was the start of our company.’
Do you have any concluding remarks?
‘Certainly! I’d love to plug our latest innovation. Besides market development, we are also engaged in product development. Based on our expertise in greenhouse screens we recently developed an automatic anti-hail net that can be used by tree nurseries, for example. The net can be opened and closed by remote - through a simple SMS - to enable the grower to effortlessly activate the system. Of course, hail isn’t a regular occurrence in the Netherlands, but in Italy and Germany it is a serious problem. This means that this product will generate lots of export opportunities. Another advantage to this system is the micro-climate that is created underneath the net, which slightly raises the temperature. This can prevent frost damage to young plants, which will also grow better and faster on account of the net.’
With thanks to: Exportmagazine.nl.
Henri Hekman was major shareholder of the BLGG Group, the leading laboratory for soil analysis. In 2013 he sold the company to Eurofins. But instead of enjoying his retirement, he chose to start something new. Inspired by his analytical background but with the addition of IT and statistics, he founded Dutch Sprouts.
The choice was easy for him: "Starting something new was simple: I had the knowledge, money and people. So the question was not why, but rather why not? Besides, I wanted to do something for humanity and this was the ideal chance."
Dutch Sprouts offers a number of products, of which products for the analysis of soil samples are the most important ones. Every farmer knows that the composition of the soil is important: the nutrients that are in it decide what can be grown and how much of it. Worldwide the soil composition is mainly determined by chemical analyses. Based on these results, a fertilizer recommendation is made. The analysis of a soil sample can easily cost 60 to 70 euros and is daily practice, at least in most parts of the Western world. However, this is very different in, for example, Africa, Asia or Eastern Europe. Farmers in those parts of the world do not have the right techniques at their disposal nor the financial resources."
"The SoilCares scanner, not bigger than a drill, allows you to take a sample anywhere in the world. The data are sent to our computers via a smartphone."
"Especially for this group, we have found a solution. We have made a link between the digital scan of the ground based on the infrared sensor and the chemical analysis. By taking 1500 samples and analysing and validating the scans, we can now predict which substances are in the soil based on the scan. The scan is, as it were, extrapolated with existing data."
"It provides a whole new business model. The SoilCares scanner, not bigger than a drill, allows you to take a sample anywhere in the world. The data are sent to our computers via a smartphone. Within seconds the analysis is made and sent back. Payment is done through the local telephone network. No more expensive analyses: just a few dollars. It is real-time and also manageable for poor farmers! Not only an analysis is made, but also an instant fertilizer recommendation tailored to the local availability of raw materials."
"If you translate this concept into marketing terms, mass is the keyword. Many small amounts together eventually lead to profits."
"If you translate this concept into marketing terms, mass is the keyword. Many small amounts together eventually lead to profits. Fortunately, there are a lot of farmers in the world and more poor ones than rich ones. The reason that we are mainly active in developing countries is not only based on social grounds, but simply on commercial considerations."
You must be heavily betting on sales and marketing if you want to conquer the whole world?
"Not really. The key is that this technique is game-changing. We see a production improvement of 50% up to double the output. Believe me, that's not difficult to communicate. We are already being approached by cooperatives and growers from all over the world. Even governments contact us."
"Yes, a doubling of the production transcends the interests of individual farmers. Quite apart from the fact that some countries want to be self-supporting, the economic contribution is so significant that the gross national product is affected."
Does every farmer have to buy its own scanner?
"We sell the scanner at cost, approximately 2,000 euros, and that is of course getting cheaper as the sales increase. It is expected that there will be a new market for intermediaries. They measure the soil; the farmer pays them, for example, $ 5 and the intermediary pays us $ 3 per analysis. Larger cooperatives for, amongst others, coffee, sugar and grain, and large farmers will obviously buy their own scanner."
"Technique sells itself: have you ever been contacted by Facebook with the request to open an account?"
Henri continues: "Furthermore, we have also developed a compact laboratory for this group, the Lab-in-a-Box. This compact laboratory measures more accurately than the scanner, and can be placed on a jeep, if desired. We already have 30 orders for the lab-in-a-box, especially from East Africa, as well as Ukraine and the United States. An analysis with the Lab-in-a-box is more complex and takes more time than an analysis with a scanner, for which more support is needed from the Netherlands. We will not open our own offices for the scanners. We will just start from the analogy of the drills and expect the SoilCares scanner to eventually be sold through sites like Amazon and Bol.com. "Technique sells itself: have you ever been contacted by Facebook with the request to open an account?"
Another innovative product is the Scoutbox, especially designed to identify and count pest insects. This is also based on digital technology and databases: sticky traps hanging in greenhouses to monitor pest insect population are automatically counted and analysed. The sticky trap is placed in the Scoutbox and a digital picture is made."This picture is sent to our computers and a count is made of the insects and the type of insect is determined. The gardener then gets an overview on his computer with the type of insects and how many insects are present in his greenhouse and where. A lot of tomato growers in the Netherlands are already using the Scoutbox. "
"The market demands more: we are now working to develop a database for trips, so the Scoutbox can also recognise and count these trips."
"The market demands more: we are now working to develop a database for trips, so the Scoutbox can also recognise and count them. Trips are tiny bugs that can be found on plants and flowers, and which may cause problems for export."
Why develop? It is exactly the same system, isn't it?
"Yes, but you have to realize that we have to interpret the pictures correctly and that requires a lot of programming. A tiny fly that flies against a sticky trap, sometimes bursts in different pieces. Our software then needs to reconstruct a head, leg or wing to one fly so it does not count them as three flies. IT is our R&D!"
Finally, Mr. Hekman would like to give an advice to the agricultural world: “Manage your business in a more rational way! A farmer might see his cow as Klara 2, I see it as a factory. There is input, output and residues. The point is to optimize this and that is only possible with IT and lots of sensors. Knowledge is power, which is something well known, but it is still unexplored ground in this sector. Even the process in a modern greenhouses can be further optimized."
"Forget what you've learned from your predecessors. Let statistical software find a causal link between all measured variables, because believe me, there is one!"
In the course of the past 50 years, the BOM Group has developed from an innovative greenhouse builder, heating systems installer and screening specialist into a leading international supplier of turnkey projects. At the beginning of 2016 the company moved from Naaldwijk to a bright, modern building in Hoek van Holland: a location that provides numerous logistics benefits to the BOM Group’s international clientèle. In this interview, BOM’s director Martin van Zeijl looks back at and forward to the many developments of which he has been a part.
The innovation and continual improvement of products and systems is the common thread running through the history of the BOM Group. Its founder, Piet Bom, may no longer own the company, but his innovative spirit can still be felt, even on the new premises on Kulkweg - or even all the more so. Van Zeijl: ‘We took over the company from him in 2001, and he stepped down entirely in 2004. He is almost 80 now, but he still contributes his ideas to the company. A born inventor, he is still busy inventing new things, although these are no longer for us but for his golf club. He invented a golf cart with solar panels so that it could be powered electrically, for example, and a collapsible golf cart that can be taken along on an airplane. He can speak of his inventions with enormous enthusiasm.’
‘The transition from steel to aluminium made a great impact on us, and one that received worldwide acclaim. But the list is even longer.'
Piet Bom was the main contributor of innovative ideas for the BOM Group. ‘The transition from steel to aluminium made a great impact on us, and one that received worldwide acclaim. But the list is even longer. We created a timeline on our website that displays the most important innovations. These include our roll-up façade screens, our low ridge concept, our APS screen and the SunergyKas 2.0, a new generation of semi-closed greenhouses. Piet was a genuine Gyro Gearloose. Fortunately, we are able to take over that role thanks to our outstanding R&D department, who are always on top of the latest developments,’ says Van Zeijl.
Piet Bom’s smartest innovations were a determining factor for the development of the company in the past century. Now that innovative concepts are following on one another at an ever-accelerating pace, technical innovations alone are not sufficient. ‘We have an incredibly tight organisation. Our permanent team is composed of 30 people. Our heating and screening systems are developed in-house. Although boilers and other systems are made elsewhere, we do have a heating systems department that handles all the engineering aspects, as well as purchasing, planning, and so on. We work with permanent partners for water and electrical engineering. This enables us to deliver a turn-key project working in collaboration with no more than three or four other companies. As a result, lines are short and agreements are strict, but there is also more flexibility. Besides that, we prefer to engage local partners wherever possible. That’s one of the areas we excel in: organising our network of partners. I consider that one of our key success factors.’
‘Nowadays, almost 100% of what we produce is exported. This has had an enormous impact on our organisation.'
When Van Zeijl started his career with the BOM Group in 1999, its clientèle was composed primarily of Dutch and Belgian growers. The 2008 economic crisis resulted in an important turnaround. ‘Nowadays, almost 100% of what we produce is exported. This has had an enormous impact on our organisation. Last year we were active in eleven different countries, with Germany, the USA and Canada as our principle markets. In addition to this, we also completed several projects in Japan and China. Sales are doing well in Poland and Russia too, even if the market is receding slightly.’
What are some of the technological developments that Van Zeijl is anticipating for the future? ‘We are expecting a great deal from the ‘water-saving greenhouse’ concept. We built the largest testing centre in the Middle East in Riyad (ed.: Saudi Arabia), for example. Minister Kamp was present at the opening. The complex measures 8,500 m2 and contains fifteen different sections, of which four are high-tech (closed greenhouse equipped with all imaginable facilities), seven are mid-tech (with a variety of covering, screening cloth and/or pad&fan systems) and two are low-tech (plastic greenhouses). The people working there now use 10,000 litres of water per square metre to harvest 30 kilos of tomatoes. Every tomato grown here costs 330 litres of water. And that in a country where water is becoming continually scarcer.’
‘We think that our closed greenhouses will enable us to achieve water savings of 90%.'
Van Zeijl believes that a water-saving greenhouse can drastically reduce the amount of water per kilo needed for production purposes. ‘We think that our closed greenhouses will enable us to achieve water savings of 90%. According to Wageningen University, the production in a greenhouse like that could be increased to 114 kilos per square metre. However, if they manage to get 90 kilos I will still be delighted. They will then be able to quickly pay back their investment on that high-tech greenhouse. The outside temperature there is 45 to 46 degrees; cooling via a pad&fan system costs a lot more energy in Saudi Arabia than in the Netherlands. They pump water up from the substrate, remove the salt and pump the brine back into the ground. As a result, the ground water there is becoming increasingly salty. This means having to drill increasingly deeper wells. At some point you will have reached the limit. The amount of energy needed is also continually increasing.’
Zero emission and zero residue
Are we working towards achieving zero-emission and zero-residue greenhouses? ‘You could never reduce emissions to zero, and the same applies to residue. However, almost zero is feasible. We work with over-pressure (we call these our Air in Control greenhouses), for example, which keeps all unwanted elements outside. Whatever does enter the greenhouse is filtered first. This way all pollutants are kept out of the greenhouse. We have sold several of these already. This greenhouse is comparable to the Ultra-Clima and Maxi Air greenhouses, which are equipped with air handling units mounted into the façade, and are combined in some cases with a pad&fan system, inside air recirculation, CO2 dosage and so on. We have noticed that this is a growing market, but it only works in specific areas. Systems like these simply aren’t as useful when in wet weather conditions. You have to be able to pump dry air into your greenhouse for it to work.’
'Greenhouses are becoming increasingly energy-efficient, but growers are also growing more efficiently.'
Can greenhouses become even more efficient? ‘With 40 cubic metres it’s too expensive, but we are working on 20 cubic metres per square metre. Greenhouses are becoming increasingly energy-efficient, but growers are also growing more efficiently. Greenhouses require more technology and expertise than ever before.’
Vertical farming? ‘I consider that to be a niche product. Economies of scale cannot be achieved, and your costs prices will soar. If you build a greenhouse on top of an existing building, construction prices will be much higher than when you are building on a plot of land. We built a high-tech greenhouse for a customer in Canada who will be growing organic produce for Wholefoods. By means of an experiment, the greenhouse will be built adjacent to one of the stores. If the project is a success, Wholefoods will probably want to build more greenhouses next to their stores. I think that this concept will be more successful than the idea of closed-off cultivation systems with multiple-tier cultivation, LED lighting, robots, and so on.’
'I believe that most a supermarket shoppers consider prices look at prices first.'
How big does Van Zeijl think the market share is for produce grown in a closed system? ‘I expect it to be about 10% of all buyers. These will be among the more affluent segment and prepared to pay 20% more for their food. I believe that most a supermarket shoppers consider prices look at prices first. However, it could be very interesting for hipsters who want to use their smartphone to see how their head of lettuce or fresh fish are coming along.’
Where do you expect to be five years from now? ‘We will still be in Hoek van Holland, with a fantastic team of enthusiastic people. We operate worldwide as a leading player in our segment. However, we keep telling each other: we don’t have to be the biggest, but we do aim to be the best. Of course, we’ll never scream this from the rooftops! We favour a no-nonsense approach. We walk our talk. It’s easy to become the biggest, but staying the best is no easy task. We are present at trade fairs and exhibitions, but don’t advertise in magazines to tell people how good we are. We prefer to leave that to our satisfied customers.’
BOM will be officially celebrating its 50th anniversary on 31 March 2016. The event will only be celebrated within the company itself. Anniversary festivities will probably be organised for all customers of the BOM Group during or after Greentech.
JEM-id is based in Honselersdijk and develops websites and software. Ninety-five per cent of its clients are active in the fresh produce and ornamental plants sectors. Account manager Martijn van Andel has experienced the rapid growth in online sales achieved in the past few years by the ornamental plants sector, while according to him the the fresh produce sector lagged notably behind.
Van Andel explains that the diversity of the products in the ornamental plants sector is much greater than that of the fresh produce sector. Apart from this, consumers want to see fresh food products before buying them. ‘Even if you’re speaking about the same product, there are notable differences. No two moth orchids (Phalaenopsis) are alike. The number of branches will be different, as well as the quality, the packaging, and many other aspects. You really buy a specific article. This is why people are looking for ways to clearly and efficiently present the diversity of their products. Good photographs, taken at the growers’ place of business, are very important in this.’
This is different in the fresh produce sector, and the differences are less obvious. ‘If you order a five-kilogram box of red sweet peppers, diversity will be very limited. Everyone knows what you mean and nobody actually needs to look at the products before buying them. In this respect, ordering fresh produce is easier than ordering ornamental plants.’
JEM-id developed the FloraXchange online communication platform especially for the potted plant sector. This platform provides support to growers in advertising their offering of potted plants. There are currently 1,059 growers affiliated with FloraXchange who present their products on the website. JEM-id makes this information available to more than 300 buyers, who in turn forward this information to their own customers. ‘It is quite revolutionary in the market. I venture to claim that this initiative has given the entire sector a boost. It provides in a demand; we have obtained a lot of positive response.’
According to the ICT specialist, trade companies really wanting to boost their sales have to make sure that their internal automation and logistics processes are in order. This means that a lot of their old systems will need to be replaced. Of course, not everyone is equally enthusiastic about this. ‘If you are a leading exporter of fresh produce or ornamental plants and you have to replace your internet systems, this will cost you a lot of money. This will, of course, have a huge impact, while the success ratio can be called quite exciting in terms of feasibility. There are many companies who keep putting this off. However, you have to embrace change rather than avoid it; at this point you have no other choice. You have to change with the times. This is the only way to survive in a world where the only constant is change.’
According to Van Andel, there are still plenty of opportunities in the consumer market, both in the ornamental plants sector and the fresh produce sector. Logistics plays an important part in that respect. ‘Although there are special boxes available these days for shipping plants, shipping shoes is still a lot easier. Besides this, plants are impulse products. You don’t decide to buy a plant when you’re sitting on the couch in the evening with your laptop; you decide to buy one when you’re at the garden centre or the supermarket.’
However, the ICT specialist is surprised that the trend of buying groceries online is lagging so far behind. At the same time, he offers some plausible explanations for this. ‘Ordering a packet of macaroni, a jar of pasta sauce or a carton of yoghurt online is easy. But it’s different when you’re buying fruit or vegetables. If you regularly buy produce at a supermarket, you know that the freshest mushrooms aren’t the ones stalled out in front, and that the quality of green beans is variable from day to day. This is preventing a lot of consumers from buying these products online.’
One of the aspects that should be taken into consideration is customer perceptions at the moment of sale. ‘Buying a computer online is a lot more fun than buying one at a shop. Mediamarkt may have the lowest prices, but when you buy a computer there you will be helped by an eighteen-year-old in an ill-fitting jacket. On the other hand, when you buy a computer via Coolblue, you are not being pestered by anybody trying to sell you a more expensive product, you can consult hundreds of user reviews and your computer will be delivered to your home the next morning. It’s clear who will be winning this race.’
Text: Tuinbouwteksten.nl/Ank van Lier. Photo: JEM-id.
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