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Wageningen UR gets a Chinese solar greenhouse

The IDC International at Wageningen UR in Bleiswijk is getting a Chinese solar greenhouse. In it, research, development and demonstration activities can be carried out to support Dutch companies on the Chinese market. Why the Netherlands? And how is Chinese horticulture currently developing?

China is the largest greenhouse vegetable producer in the world, with Shangdong being the most important region for the agricultural sector. Vegetables are grown on a whopping 866,700 hectares, representing nearly 25% of the overall Chinese cultivation. For comparison: the Netherlands cultivated 83,647 hectares of vegetables last year, both greenhouse and open ground. The major city in Shangdong is Weifang, where most greenhouse production is located.

The increasing demand for fresh produce was on everybody’s minds during the recent Fruit Logistica in Hong Kong. The consensus among traders was clear: China offers opportunities, but considerable progress has yet to be made. The demand for Chinese quality produce has been growing in recent years. The population is growing and is becoming more prosperous, causing the demand for fresh and above all safe food to increase accordingly. Food scandals have increased both the price and the popularity of foreign produce. China imports more and more fresh produce, as well as other products. Currently, Dutch traders are working hard on opening the border for Dutch peppers. Phil Hogan, EU agriculture commissioner, will visit China later this year on behalf of the European Union. He referred to the country as an "Open door for new export".

One thing is certain though, quality needs to improve.

Greenhouses in Shangdong

Challenges in the sector

The demand for quality also provides opportunities for Dutch suppliers. Horticulture in Shangdong may be exponentially large, but quality is nowhere near Dutch levels. Cultivation mainly occurs in the renowned solar greenhouses. The yields are low and the crop is vulnerable. Getting the product to the end user poses another formidable challenge. The Chinese cold chain for fresh produce is exceedingly muddy and convoluted in the extreme: an estimated 40% of production is wasted in the chain.

Retailers and trading companies are catching up to the dilemma, and are trying to tackle the problem by going further back in the chain. They buy directly from the grower, or start their own nurseries.

Chinese solar greenhouse, photo courtesy of NAFTC China

The situation in Chinese horticulture arguably provides opportunities for suppliers - though the market poses its own unique difficulties. The corporate culture is a well-known stumbling block, and the language is tricky, but the unstable exchange rate of the renminbi (the official currency of the People's Republic of China) also plays an increasing role. The situation notwithstanding, no fewer than 63 Dutch companies currently have a branch office in Shangdong. Conversely, 25 Shangdonese companies are located in the Netherlands. Horticultural companies like Rijk Zwaan, Priva, Axia Vegetable Seeds and Hoogendoorn have been active in China for many years, with breeder Incotec even opening a second location earlier this month; the new facility in Tianjin City will concentrate on the production of the company’s film coats for vegetable and field crops seeds for the Chinese seed market.

Solar greenhouse
2013 saw the start of a cooperative venture between the Dutch government and a number of businesses (GreenQ, Hoogendoorn, Knight-Hortimax, WUR, Lentiz, Boal and Ludvig Svensson), aimed specifically at the Chinese market. Besides joint promotion, the program includes further market research, cultivation comparisons in demonstration projects and a joint communication plan.

The next step in the project includes the advent of so-called solar greenhouses in the Netherlands. "Most Dutch Suppliers in the sector still focus on high-tech greenhouses like the ones that are common in the Netherlands today. However, in many parts of China the solar greenhouse has become standard," declared the NAFTC China, which is coordinating the project from their office in Beijing. Dutch suppliers can contribute to the optimization of the greenhouse, and increase their market in doing so. In Shougugang a demo project is already underway. "Dutch technology is applied and tested, and the results monitored in order to get the hard data needed to show where profits are to be achieved." With the greenhouse now available in the Netherlands, the companies concerned may do research and training to further aid Chinese growers. The Greenport Horti Campus Oostland in Bleiswijk is likely to start construction of the (Chinese) solar greenhouse in late 2015, under the supervision of Wageningen UR.

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