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"Smart people from outside the sector help us get ahead"

RedStar starts pilot with robots that analyze plant well-being

RedStar once started out by growing lettuce under flat glass. The Dutch company has since grown into a specialist in the field of high-quality, tasty tomatoes and is active in all parts of the chain. To maintain its leading position, RedStar works together with food companies and educational institutions from the Rotterdam Food Cluster. RedStar also works together with TU Delft and RoboValley to realize innovation projects. RedStar employees Patrick van der Kaaij, General Manager of Tuinen Voorne-Putten and Steven Timmers, Manager Bedrijfsbureau, talk about the pilot and how they work together with others to put the company and the horticultural sector on the map.

In order to realize innovation projects, a special group has been set up within RedStar. “With this innovation group from cultivation, ICT and logistics, we want to realize innovation projects from different angles. In collaboration with TU Delft and RoboValley, for example, we started a number of studies. Soon we will start a pilot with a startup in the field of robotization. We will analyze plants with smart cameras so that we can see in time whether a plant feels worse or has certain deviations. These cameras indicate in which section we have to take a look," Timmers explains.

Perhaps this kind of research solves the problem that Van der Kaaij is talking about. “It would be nice if we could replace the heavy physical work with machines. Right now, robots aren't advanced enough yet. Every tomato is slightly different and therefore needs different treatment. The knowledge of technicians and technology itself still needs to grow in order to automate this process,” says Van der Kaaij.

Smart people from outside the sector help us further
RedStar has a major challenge binding flex employees to the company. “Most temp workers often only stay with us for a short time. We would like to keep them longer. We hope to achieve this by offering a lot of hours, bonuses, gifts, year-round work, a permanent contract and enough growth opportunities,” says Van der Kaaij.

Timmers: “There are currently several people who started out as crop workers, in training as foremen. They are trained step-by-step by a location manager." These days, training courses are common at RedStar. Timmers: “A few years ago we looked for people with five years of experience in horticulture. This unfortunately resulted in an insufficient number of candidates, so we decided to train employees ourselves. We have also attracted people from outside horticulture. In addition, we offer various traineeships for positions such as sales and cultivation specialists. This is particularly interesting for people who don't have experience in the sector, but who have a lot of passion for horticulture. The smart people that don't come from horticulture have a completely different view of the sector. They can help us get further."

Marketing the horticultural sector
Steven Timmers explains why it is so important to conduct marketing in the Netherlands. “Horticulture abroad is much more well-known than in our own country. Here, people still think that we just pick tomatoes. However, a lot of technology is involved." Together with other established companies from the Rotterdam Food Cluster, RedStar participated in the two-day student event Markt Match to reach the new generation. During this event, two hundred students worked on challenges from and with global players from the regional food sector in the field of plant food, food waste and recruitment.

Timmers continues: "By participating in Markt Match we wanted to establish ourselves better among students and schools in the Rotterdam region. We are still too unknown for many schools. Some schools also don't see the link with horticulture. Especially with courses that aren't specifically related to food, such as communication and economics, you can get into horticulture. I myself studied logistics and economics and ended up at RedStar through an internship, where I became extremely enthusiastic about the horticultural sector.”

Steven in action during Markt Match

Interesting blockchain innovations
Timmers is enthusiastic about the results of Markt Match and talks about his personal favorites: "There were a number of innovations with blockchain that I found very interesting. I think there is a great future for horticulture there. Also pulverizing (residual) vegetables is an interesting concept, because people have less time and this is convenient." The results of Markt Match are encouraging, according to Timmers. “A survey among the 200 students present showed that 50% are considering working in horticulture and 16% say yes 'wholeheartedly'. It's now important that we think about the follow-up of Markt Match. We have planted a seed. Now we have to continue the cooperation, so that we can distinguish ourselves as a sector." In addition to cooperation on the labor market, Van der Kaaij also wants to work together with growers associations and retail.

Horticulture is the answer to the increasing food problem
Timmers thinks it's important not only to act as RedStar, but as a food cluster as a whole. “To maintain our number one position, collaboration within the Rotterdam Food Cluster and the organization of events such as Markt Match is crucial. That's why we would like to follow up on this. By working together, we can work more effectively on the name recognition of the sector. This can, for example, lead to joint packaging and shared traineeships. We don't care if a trainee chooses us one time and another time for another fruit and vegetable company. It's about what's best for the sector. Horticulture is the answer to various food issues such as increasing food scarcity and the growing world population. We have to believe in it ourselves and act accordingly.”

Sustainable packaging can determine price
RedStar distinguishes itself by cultivating in a customer-oriented way, packaging tomatoes sustainably and continuously innovating at the product level. The competition in horticulture is increasing, according to Patrick van der Kaaij. “Passing on the cost price to the customer is our biggest challenge. This is due in part to the well-known peaks and valleys in our sector. Because the production per square meter rises, and after a good year all colleagues expand their production, including RedStar, more and more tomatoes are supplied to the market.”

Still RedStar is able to stand out. At product level there is continuous taste testing and new varieties are constantly being developed. “We also want to focus mainly on sustainable packaging. It would be nice if the supermarkets also cooperate and we can settle on one type of packaging that determines the price,” says Van der Kaaij. “We also want to cooperate with other companies in this, so that we can, for example, package different types of vegetables together. This way we can add value instead of just putting a tomato in a container,” Timmers says.

Source: Rotterdam Food Cluster

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