Kees Kranenburg, grower at Agro-Invest:
"Russian horticulture: "one big adventure"
Earlier this month Kees Kranenburg returned from Russia. Since then, he has been working in his own vegetable greenhouse. Last year, together with his brother Jan, Kees openeda fresh shop in the Netherlands, where they sell their own produce. After working in Russia for a half a year he was pleased to be back in his own garden and shop again. “It is so beautiful. If I was a customer here, I would buy everything,” he says, laughing. “The quality of the fruit and vegetables here is very different from the vegetables in Russia. Despite the boycott, there is enough produce available, especially in the big cities. But due to the distances, through Belarus and Turkey, and the bad roads in the country, quality is hard to find.” Fruit and vegetables that Kranenburg would perhaps prefer to throw away, were actually for sale in Russian stores.
In Russia, Kranenburg worked for Agro-Invest. In the coming years the development company will establish a 100ha sized greenhouse in the Kaluga region, about 300 kilometres from Moscow. The first 20ha were completed earlier this year. Although, completed? “They thought they would be finished in January, but when I left in the beginning of this month, the last greenhouse builder was still there,” Kranenburg says. “I actually went there to install the lights. They are still not working.” This despite the fact that Dutch greenhouse builders are generally known for their punctuality and speed. “Speed is not the problem, but the planning of the subcontractors is often hard to influence. They set the pace. If something is not done, you have to wait.” The order of construction also causes delays. “I would say: you start with completing the infrastructurebefore building a company, but they do it last. I cannot explain why. At one point, we were in production, but the pallets could not be sent out,” Kranenburg says. “And it seems logical to build a shed before you place a boiler. They do that differently too: they pour the floor, install the boiler, and then start working on the shed. We had to hurry up to have the boiler covered before autumn.”
For Kranenburg, it’s not the first time he’s helping Russian companies start up their cultivation and education of local staff. Last year, he worked at a cucumber nursery in the vicinity of Saint Petersburg, and in previous years he traveled a lot back and forth as a cultivation adviser. “It is a surprise every time. Last year, I made the production plan, and they opted for year-round production. With this project, they finished cultivation first, and then looked at what to do next. At some point, the greenhouse was empty. Then they started to cultivate the new plants. This means you are out of production for six weeks,” Kranenburg says. “I think this will change in the future, but they thought it was the best option back then.” He noticed one thing: Russian horticulture is closed. “Here, in the Netherlands, horticulture is very open – there, it’s all secretive. Everyone keeps their know-how to themselves. A chief agronomist will have been hired to make recipes, but they will not teach it to anyone else. The young people who are just out of school, have never done that either. So it’s a matter of teaching them as much as possible and hoping they will continue to do it as they have learned. That is why we are here for.”
As a cucumber expert, Kranenburg has been heavily involved in setting up cucumber cultivation at Agro-Invest. Eventually, it will have to be illuminated, but the lamps haven’t been installed yet. Because the CHPs weren’t ready yet, artificial lighting wasn’t possible in the first production round. “Three of the four CHPs are working now, but the lamps aren’t much use during the summer. So they will finish the job in September, when the lamps can be switched on.” The third production round of this year is to be illuminated. That can be done very cost-effectively. “Everything is cheap now, but in winter the prices are good, and Russian winters are long.”
In the fall, long cucumbers are expected to grow in the greenhouse again too. “They were there at the start of this year, cucumbers as we know them. But this production goes to Moscow, and in summer they only eat gherkins there, the management says. They call them short cucumbers – but they really are gherkins.” Those varieties aren’t exactly known for their great taste. “I do not like them either, but there’s no accounting for taste. There’s less juice in them and more dry matter,” Kranenburg explains. In Moscow, they are pickled as well, something that happens a lot in Russia. “Not just cucumbers, but tomatoes and other vegetables as well. People who don’t have their own dacha (community garden, ed.), buy fresh produce and preserve it. That doesn’t happen over here that much.”
It’s possible that Kranenburg will return this autumn to support the Russian nursery in the illuminated cucumber cultivation. “The best thing about projects like this? That’s the country itself. It’s a completely different country, you see new things, visit people’s homes. Then you really see what goes on in a country. You have to return in time, in order not to lose touch with life over here, but I certainly don’t return to Russia grudgingly.”