"It really is cucumber time now", André Vahl says with a wink. In Dutch 'cucumber time' refers to the summer weeks when media has very little interesting news to report, but for cucumber growers it really does mean high season. It's mid-July and there's lots of sun. The abundant light makes for a big harvest in the greenhouses in the Koekoekspolder in IJsselmuiden. André: "If you're not getting your maximum harvest right now as a cucumber grower, that's not good."
Dries and André Vahl at the trailer bringing empty crates to the nearby 3.1 hectare greenhouse.
"We love the hectic pace associated with cucumber cultivation, we don't like it boring," continues André. For a long time, an autumn crop of tomatoes was kept alongside the growing of cucumbers, but since 2012 the focus has solely been on cucumber cultivation. The family business started in 1950 with the cultivation of field vegetables and chicory. In 1989 the step to cultivation on substrate was made in their greenhouses.
The harvested cucumbers are kept moist while awaiting processing in the shed.
Music from the radio in the shed cuts through the noise of the sorting and packaging machines. Dries Vahl: "In recent years we have grown rapidly, from 3 hectares in 1996 to 10.1 hectares since 2014. In Germany my brother Kees also grows cucumbers and sweet peppers on 4.6 hectares. In the Netherlands there aren't very many cucumber growers with an area of more than 10 hectares. The cultivation is difficult to plan, which is the reason that cucumber companies grow slower than tomato and pepper growers."
The cucumbers go into boxes in a machine where they are put on a conveyor belt and vice versa.
Sustainable and local for regular customers
The cucumbers in the greenhouses are grown sustainably. Since 2013 'geothermal cucumbers' can be harvested thanks to a connection to a nearby well. To sell the cucumbers as sustainably as possible, the brothers try to sell locally when they can. André: "By local I mean the Netherlands in this case: customers are increasingly coming to pick up their cucumbers directly, which saves transport and is better for the environment, and we also supply local shops."
Sales are made via Best of Four. About 30 percent of the cucumbers are sold through annual contracts. Dries: "A higher percentage isn't practical, because the cultivation is too erratic for that. Customers don't care about what the weather is like." In total, about 80 to 85 percent of the annual production is already covered at the beginning of each season. These cucumbers often go to regular customers, mostly based on weekly prices. André: "We see more and more that the customer prefers to take his cucumbers from one grower, because the customer knows exactly what quality he gets."
The cucumbers are weighed and measured on the conveyor belt, after which they are sorted and put into crates. Those crates then automatically go to a machine that packs the cucumbers. Depending on the customer, this can be done in crates or boxes of any size, and sealing the cucumbers is done in the shed at Vahl.
They use traditional cultivation, and they rotate crops four times per year on 5 hectares of land. Dries: "This allows us to deliver good quality from February to November, and by maintaining an interplanting process between every crop rotation, we keep our production as even as possible. Per rotation we only have four days without harvest, as opposed to three weeks without any interplanting between rotations." Cucumbers on the high wire under SON-T and without lighting in traditional cultivation.
In a small part of the greenhouse, around 0.2 hectares, high-wire cultivation has been chosen. Dries: "We tested this without lighting in 2016, but the weight was too low in the beginning, and it was not until week 14 that the fruit weight started to increase." That is why there are SON-T lamps above the 2,000 square meters of high wire cultivation. Dries: "The cucumber plants love the radiant heat that you do not get with LED lamps, because the problem with lighting is that it also has to produce a higher price as soon as you want to grow all year round. Unlike Spanish tomatoes, Spanish cucumbers actually do arrive in winter and are a cheaper alternative, so the market will go for that instead."
With their 10 hectares the cucumber growers have a large volume, which makes it easy for them to deliver several pallets to their customers for each sorting. In order to continue growing in the future, another 2.4 hectares of land was purchased at the end of last year. Sustainability is not forgotten, because it is expected that in May 2019 a wood boiler will be connected to the greenhouse of 3.1 hectares that was completed in 2014. Dries: "Just like you spread risks in your sales, your energy supply also means that you have to spread the risks. Ideally, there would be a heat network in the Koekoekspolder, to which multiple sources and growers would be connected. We are also working on a second geothermal heat source."
For more information:Maatschap Gebroeder Vahlwww.firstname.lastname@example.org