Netherlands: Big with small greenhouse vegetables

The price of courgettes is dropping considerably, aubergines are still profiting from the vegetarian hype, and for leafy vegetables, the connection between grower and trade is essential. The radish grower is casting envious looks at German sales, and red bell pepper is as popular as always. An overview of small greenhouse vegetables.



Red chili pepper more popular than green
Demand for green chili peppers is dropping, consumption of the red version is rising. According to Krijn van der Spijk of growers’ association Hotpepper, the red pepper is popular thanks to its recognisability. “The red pepper was already often used in Asian dishes. The Turkish cuisine, for instance, traditionally mostly used the green pepper, but red pepper is now on the rise. The pepper is very photogenic. It’s even featured in commercials for phones. Chili pepper is also a popular addition to chocolate.”

The extremely hot peppers that go viral online might look nice, but they aren’t grown by Hotpepper. “Consumers aren’t interested in using them in meals.”

The sales channels of the growers’ association are varied. “We supply to wholesalers and, via third parties, also to supermarkets and retail.” The total area of the pepper production is difficult to estimate, according to Krijn. “There are many occasional growers who rent part of a greenhouse to grow peppers in the summer months. I guess we’re at 28 hectares in total.”

Radish season different every year
De Vries Hoek van Holland BV grows rocket and loose radish on 16 hectares. The De Vries family, siblings Marian, Jacqueline, Cor and Michel, has more than 20 years of experience with the production of radish. They harvest 1 to 1.5 hectares every week. The radishes are cleaned after harvesting, the leaves are removed, they’re sorted and packed in kilogram bags of 1, 2.5 and 10 kilograms and in pointed bags of 125 grammes. Nearly every radish is exported to European countries, says Cor. The pointed bags find their way to countries in the Middle East as well. A large part of the harvest is processed by cutting plants. Because of that, it’s important the crop is firm and white on the inside. Despite the years of experience, Cor thinks it’s difficult to make predictions for the coming season. “Every year is different. The German outdoor production has much influence on sales.”

Prices drop considerably due to oversupply of yellow courgettes
In recent years, yellow courgette did well regarding price. The area was limited and prices were stable. It was a proper luxury product: more expensive and with a shorter shelf life. The yellow vegetable mostly wound up in specialist greengrocer’s shops. Until one grower stopped production of yellow courgette last year. That gap was filled by five or six companies without consultation, says courgette grower Johan. Much too much yellow was planted. The result? Supply increased and prices dropped considerably.

“Fortunately we’re able to sell our product. The low price makes the product interesting for supermarkets. Particularly if the price of yellow drops below that of green courgettes we’ll see demand from that corner increasing. On average, consumers use two courgettes per meal. That means it would be nice to have different colours. Although yellow courgettes have been grown in the Netherlands for more than 20 years, it’s still a fairly unknown product for consumers. We’re now hoping prices will recover this year, so that they’re slightly more favourable.”

The Dutch grower isn’t expecting exciting prices for green courgette this season. “Supermarkets have been safeguarding themselves more and more in recent years. During the winter season, they choose Spanish product, from April to October they want Dutch courgettes on their shelves. This offers certainty for growers. The vegetables not sold via contracts are meant for day trade. These prices are currently around the same level as contract prices. These aren’t exciting prices, but it’ll have to do. Day prices are partially dependent on supply from Spain as well. Once that stops, prices will increase somewhat again. If the Spanish growers produce more, prices drop again.”



Pollination is always exciting early in April. “A flower blossoms just once. It opens at five in the morning, and closes at 11 o’clock. If the flower hasn’t been pollinated by then, it won’t grow into a courgette, and you’ll have nothing.” Pollination is done by bumblebees and bees. Each morning, Johan makes his rounds through the greenhouse to see if the flowers have been pollinated. He checks to see whether the male to female ratio in the flowers is good. “The growth of the plants is going well, but due to the cold spring, the plants grow a bit too generatively. The ratio in flowers isn’t good. There aren’t enough male flowers so that pollination isn’t going well. That means you have to manually pollinate, or use flowers from other growers.”

Growing market for aubergine
Due to the cold start of the year, the production of aubergine was also delayed somewhat. “We have now had a few good, light days, so that we’re back on level,” says Michel den Ouden of Purple Pride. The growers’ association has a market share of more than 40 per cent with 42 hectares. Next year, their area will be increased to 48 hectares. “More and more of the small players are disappearing, and the large companies are becoming larger. The expansion of our area is happening because existing companies are increasing in size. The smaller companies often switch to other productions, soft fruit, for example.”

Purple Pride supplies to countries including Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, Scandinavia and the US. “In general, you can see the UK quickly returning to the Netherlands. The German market is more fickle. Prices are mediocre compared to last year. Looking at the past several years, price levels are slightly below average. Spain has been very cheap for years.” Supply from Spain stops late in May or early in June. Normally, Dutch aubergines are on the shelves between week 12 and week 43. The first Spanish aubergines will show up again in October.

Demand for aubergines is gradually increasing in most countries. The purple vegetable does well with consumers. According to Michel, that’s partly thanks to the trend for vegan food. “This is an enormous trend, and I don’t think it’ll start decreasing any time soon. Everyone is aware fewer animal products have to be consumed. That isn’t just reflected on consumers’ plates, but also in catering. It’s as if every third restaurant being opened maintains a – partially – plant-based menu. It’s not just salads anymore, but varied warm meals. Aubergine very much lends itself to such dishes.”

Vertical combined forces in lettuce sector
“In the Netherlands, brands are becoming more important in fresh produce for retail. A name creates added value throughout the supply chain. As a supplier, you can create a better position in the line from producer to consumer,” says Chris Noordam of TopKrop. In France, for example, nearly all fresh products are sold as a brand. Grower’s association Prince de Bretagne has grown into a major brand in French supermarkets, and cooperative Solarenn is also profiling itself more and more as a brand. Florette, supplier of, among other things, lettuce mixes is another major brand name that can be found in French supermarkets.

Another trend is that fresh produce traders are starting to actively produce. Vertical combining of forces, is how Chris describes it. Commercial enterprise Staay Food Group, for instance, started vertically growing lettuce last year. Chris doesn’t think this is wrong. “There’s more appreciation of knowledge now, and the craftsmanship on the side of production. Besides, short lines are essential for leafy vegetables. That’s why we need that connection with trade.”



Chris describes TopKrop as a commercial nursery. He is the second generation in the company that was founded in 1968. Growing entirely for the free market is not an option for the production of leafy vegetables according to Chris. “If you want to play any kind of part, you have to work intensely with the final customers. We only harvest at the time of sales. That’s why we don’t have stocks, and fresh actually means fresh. It is challenging. It requires both an insight into sales and production experience.”

Because customers can have the most varying orders, TopKrop is challenged to gain much production knowledge. Many tests are conducted because of this, with various exclusive varieties. “It usually takes about five years to master the production process. It all starts with the right seeds. That’s why it’s important to have good connections with the right suppliers.”

Prospects
TopKrop’s season usually lasts from April to October. The long winter caused orders to come in later than usual. However, the experienced grower isn’t worried. “It makes things lively,” he says. “You can plan things as much as you like, climate will always remain a deciding factor for sales. We check the thermometer every day. As soon as temperatures start rising towards 20 degrees Celsius, orders start coming in.”

TopKrop has a varied clientele, and also supplies food service. The lettuce is used on sandwiches and in wraps. Besides, Asian leafy vegetables are still on the rise. “That increased considerably in recent years. The Asian leafy vegetable is used in stir-fry kits, and catering also loves it.”

In general, Chris has seen the consumer pattern growing. Younger consumers choose leafy vegetables more often. Spinach, for instance, is eaten raw more often. Consumers have no reason to complain about variation due to the extensive range. There’s still quite a large group of consumers who choose classic lettuce varieties such as butterhead lettuce and cabbage lettuce. Iceberg lettuce is still number one, followed by cabbage lettuce. Besides, consumers can choose from a wide range varying in flavour, colour and texture.

For more information:
Krijn van der Spijk
krijn@kvanderspijk.nl

Cor de Vries
info@devrieshvh.nl

Johan Zwinkels
johan.zwinkels@wxs.nl
Chris Noordam
info@topkrop.nl

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