Perhaps we’ll be picking papaya and other tropical fruits in Dutch greenhouses in five years. Or wasabi, black pepper and vanilla, which is now mostly being grown on Madagascar and which yields about 500 euro per kilo? At the Wageningen University & Research, they’re researching the possibilities. “Pioneering with new productions is a chicken-and-egg story,” says Sjaak Bakker, Business Unit Manager Greenhouse Horticulture.
The tomato was once an exotic, and while bell peppers were hardly produced 30 years ago, they’re now a major production. The production of soft fruit is shifting from outdoor to greenhouse production. But what is the biggest greenhouse crop of the future? In the Dutch experimental greenhouses of the WUR, they’re experimenting with the production of various tropical fruit crops. These products are imported across long distances, and are often on the road for weeks. To that end, they’re harvested at an early stage. This affects flavour. People in production and sales are becoming more interested in growing exotics in the Netherlands.
The production of exotic crops is part of the research programme Greenhouse as Pharmacy, in which they’re looking for new revenue models for the horticulture sector. “In the Netherlands, we’re very good at the production of, for example, tomatoes on a large scale. We can improve by growing crops with a higher value per square metre. The price difference between a kilo of tomatoes and a kilo of vanilla is considerable. A kilo of vanilla bags about €500.”
Demand from the market
“Pioneering is a bit of a chicken-and-egg story,” Sjaak says. “Not much can be said about pricing yet, because you never know how large the sales market will be and whether the consumer will be willing to pay for the quality of the Dutch production.Will it even be possible to successfully produce the crops? It’s worth finding out.”
The research started both at the initiative of the Greenhouse Horticulture Unit and by demand from entrepreneurs. All kinds of parties are now joining, both from the production and from the sales sides of things. “There’s demand from the market. The business club of the Business Unit in Bleiswijk (Club van 100), but a group of horticultural entrepreneurs as well, are using various projects with the WUR to find crops to start producing and marketing. They’re doing that as a group, because the investment and risks for an individual entrepreneur are too large. As a collective, they can all profit.”
The market is also positive about the production – they want constant quality and a stable supply. “The quality of imported products tends to vary. They’re often produced less environmentally friendly, and they contain residues of pesticides that could harm human health. If a producer can supply these products of a certain quality year-round, the buyer can be guaranteed of the product they’ll receive,” Sjaak says.
Potential for commercialising
The Dutch horticultural sector is world-famous for its high quality. Dutch technology can be found in greenhouse all over the world. That’s why the commercialisation of these productions has potential. “We have a lot of knowledge, we do a lot of research into the production systems, pesticides and substrates. All of this means we’re capable of not just researching a production in the Netherlands, but also of developing a completely working production system. That ensures a head start in development.”
The exotic crops of the WUR are drawing attention, both nationally and internationally. Foreign delegations regularly visit. Sjaak doesn’t think the production of exotics in the Netherlands clashes with the production in exporting countries. “We also do projects in those countries. While in the Netherlands we’re shifting to the production of high-quality products, they’re working on providing the local market with products year-round, by using modern technologies, for example. There are plenty of opportunities for the local market. Cucumbers, for instance, we won’t be exporting these to China or Africa from the Netherlands. It’s much too expensive, and the product value is too low for that.”
The WUR’s research is now working with existing crops, but special improvement programmes could be set up in future as well. Improvement takes a long time, and interest is very much dependent on how big the market is.
Wageningen University & Research