Chinese vegetables from Dutch greenhouses

Growing for Indonesian stores: better ten small customers than a big one

Choy sum, mini bok choy and Shanghai bok choy: just a few names of vegetables from the greenhouses of Freshchoi. Relatively, unknown in The Netherlands, but certainly not unloved, as this grower of Chinese vegetables knows all too well. This year it was exactly twenty years that Jan-Willem Schinkelshoek, not carrying the name Freshnoi yet, began growing Shanghai bok choy vegetables. "Simply put, the idea arose to grow these special vegetables at the local Chinese restaurant around the corner in Mijnheerensland. I was already growing white bok choy, but they told me about green bok choy which I decided to grow. One thing led to another, and over the years the assortment grew."

Jan-Willem Schinkelshoek in front of Choy sum, together with mini bok choy and Shanghai bok choy the best sellers in the assortment.

Meanwhile Freshchoi is growing twenty different kinds of Chinese vegetables. From four years ago in Mijnheerensland at 1.8 hectare, but in 2015 the move was made to Berkel en Rodenrijs because there was room for expansion. Which was very much needed, because the products are clearly on the rise. "There is an increasing demand for our product. Not only from The Netherlands, but also from Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom where people are eating more varied and will choose more often for other, unknown vegetable varieties."

Knee work
After the move they started with 2.4 hectare, after which there was an expansion by adding another greenhouse almost every year. Now Freshchoi is growing on 7 hectare and that could easily be more, if not that finding staff became harder than finding a location for growing at a given moment. The area growth is temporarily halted. "It is hard to find personnel, not only for us, but in the entire sector. Since this year we have stopped using employment agencies, and we hire our own staff. And I have to say, it works very well. By choosing not to grow, we maintain control over our company and we can build a close-knit team."

From left to right: Shanghai bok choy, tong-ho thick and tong-ho thin. “You could call it an edible chrysanthemum. We looked world wide for our seeds, because one variety is better in the United States, and another variety in China, from where a lot of our seed is coming from, if possible from steady breeders.”

Not unimportant, because the growth is labor intensive. “It is still knee work, but you get used to that quickly.” Automated harvesting of the vegetable, growing in unheated greenhouses, turned out not to be viable in spite of testing with a specially designed machine; the crop was damaged too much. “All vegetables are cut by hand, often at night or in the early morning so the vegetables are nice and fresh. Cold into the box guarantees best quality.”

Everything under control
About ninety percent of the vegetable harvested then find their way to the mostly regular clients, such as the oriental supermarkets coming up in The Netherlands. Since Freshchoi’s start in 2015, the company takes care of all its sales. Jan-Willem: At a given point I thought: how hard can it be to get a pallet abroad. For many growers this is quite a logistical challenge, because they want to focus on growing. But along the way it turned out that it really is quite simple to trade yourself. And once you start trading, trade finds you.”

In one part of the greenhouse room has been made for a number of special climbing crops. These vegetables also have their steady buyers. “Especially in early spring there is a lot of demand for these varieties. When the newness has worn off, the demand decreases. These remain niche products, such as tongkwa (photo), a Chinese melon.

In spite of a steady customer base, Freshchoi does not grow on contract. A deliberate choice: “In this way we can best serve our customers and still remain flexible. The growth of Chinese leafy crops happens in short cycles of sometimes not even four weeks in summer. So there is little room for correction if something goes wrong with the growth. Just because we stay away from contracts, we can, with close consultation, always meet the client’s demand.”

Sopropo, better known as the bitter melon.

Traditional and flexible
In the winter the Chinese leafy crops grow slower, and between sowing and harvest there can be periods of three months. For this reason, Freshchoi has product grown in Spain during the Dutch winter. “We do not heat our greenhouses, as it's much more expensive than growing in Spain.” Freshchoi has a grower there to ensure year round product. “When you start heating, you also have to start lighting, making it even more expensive. Moreover, I do not think the quality is as good as product grown in natural conditions in Spain. Our customers are supplied directly from Spain.”

Tsi Kwa, a type of melon similar to a courgette.

High tech will not be considered for now? Jan-Willem: “No, we keep on growing traditionally in the open field. A nice gutter system is very expensive. You lose flexibility which we do have now, because hiring a greenhouse to expand is much easier than expanding an extra hectare with expensive high tech system.”

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