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Corné Stouten about future-proof and profitable cucumber cultivation:

"I am not a die-hard entrepreneur, my passion is working with cucumbers"

Corné Stouten (31) lives with his family in the village of Oosterland in Zeeland (Netherlands). His parents are moving to the village in 2019, and Corné will join them in the parental house at the company. He runs a cucumber nursery together with his father. Corné knows what he wants. He is direct, a know-it-all, and convinced of himself. To keep on developing himself, he is joining the LTO talent program.

How was your company founded?
"My grandpa used to have a small agricultural company. In 1955 he built this house and the shed. Before, there was hardly anything here, and you won't see any houses from before that time. When my grandpa started here, he had a traditionally mixed company. As time progressed, his interests shifted from cows and agriculture to open field cultivation of for example cauliflower. My father entered the company in 1981, and they opted for growing chicory on the open field. Following the times, they started growing chicory on water. Back then, many growers were growing chicory in this region, now only two. In 1984 my grandfather and father started growing cucumbers. In 1990 they abandoned chicory and focused on growing cucumbers."

Did you always know you wanted to take over the company?
"Yes, absolutely. When I was small I always walked all over the company and this way I grew into the company. When I was a schoolboy, I could be found in the greenhouse before and after school. Often, I cycled straight into the greenhouse after school. I used to throw my bag aside, and went to work. The next morning I had to search for my bag before I could go to school.

"I have never been pushed to join the company. Rather, it would be a mayor disappointment if I was not allowed. I believe it is good if you get to know the company at an early age. A cucumber company is not only a company, but also a way of life. That is why Carolien and me will live here together with our children. In this way, they get to know the company and what it is like to live among the cucumbers."

When did you join the company?
"Ever since I was sixteen I was, beside school, employed full time at home. Since 2011 I entered the company officially, and in that year the cucumber sector was confronted with the EHEC bacteria. It was a bad year for the sector, and thus for our company. It is quite a challenge if that is the year you enter the company, but challenges are found everywhere. Particularly those years are good experiences, because you will learn what it is to be an entrepreneur. You look critically at everything, and particularly close at every invoice."

So 2011 stimulated you?
"In that year I learned immediately what being a real entrepreneur is, and that triggered me. I am not a die-hard entrepreneur, I leave that to others. My passion is working with cucumbers. Only looking at the figures, and not being among the plants is not for me. Guiding living material as well as possible is the most beautiful thing there is. 2011 was, besides the EHEC bacteria, a very beautiful year. Carolien and I got married, and went living in the village. I am very lucky with her. Being the daughter of an entrepreneur, a fruit grower from Zuid-Beveland, she knows exactly what this lifestyle entails."

How does your weekend look?
"I have always been used to working until Saturday morning. Saturday afternoon is leisure time, doing fun things with the children. Sunday is a rest day, a time of reflection. In the morning we go to church, and the children go to the nursery belonging to it. Then we have lunch at home, and take a nap. The rest of the afternoon we play with the children and Carolien and I take turns going to church. The one is in the afternoon, the other in the evening. Together with four other people I play the church organ, so sometimes I have organ shift on Sunday. Although we have chosen not to have a television, the influences from outside find their way in quicker. Everybody has a telephone and sometimes that can be a television. And of course, I have a company, so I look at my phone to see if all systems are set properly, even on Sunday. I think that is very healthy, a rest day. For one day, no cucumbers on my mind."

Can you tell briefly how the cucumber cultivation works?
"In the Netherlands, you mostly see cucumber cultivation in the south of Brabant, Limburg, and Zeeland. Some people think they are also grown in the Westland, but there mostly flowers, bell peppers, and tomatoes are grown. I have two rounds of cucumbers every year, from mid-January to mid-July, and from mid-July to early November. Many other growers opt for three rounds. To explain it easily, I make a comparison with diesel cars and sports cars. The sports cars are the companies that grow three rounds a day. They are growing 180 cucumbers per m2, while I grow only 160. You can say that I make less profit, but that is limited thinking. We should not think in terms of profit, but of efficiency."

What do you mean?
"In comparison, my 'diesel' cucumbers grow more cucumbers per plant, I have fewer labor peaks, and I don't have to use as much chemicals because I only have young plants twice a year. I can also supply cucumbers when my 'sports car' colleagues are in the first weeks of their new period, and are not producing cucumbers. At that moment, the price is right for me. But to each their own. As the years progress, my father and I are focusing on growing resistant plants, by improving the soil with worm fertilizer, and algae preparation. In the future, reducing the use of chemicals will be higher and higher on the agenda. I want to see now how I can grow stronger plants with more biological balance."

How do you see the future?
"Coming from an agricultural family, you realize you are running behind other colleagues who really come from greenhouse horticulture. You miss knowledge and expertise which other families have in their DNA. I have also made steps from growing on soil to growing in gutters. The plants will not touch the ground, which is better for water management. Also, all systems have been renewed or improved. This optimization is super important to me. Even though there is room for a 5.5 ha expansion, I am not doing that just yet. I think I won't have done that five years from now. In ten years time I will have expanded a bit, but first there will be another round of optimization. If I am still doing the same in ten years time, I will be gone in eleven years. Innovating and optimizing keeps it fun for me and my employees. I work to live, and not the other way around."

Source: Jonge Helden in het Groen

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