Arugula is originally a Mediterranean vegetable that has been cultivated in the Mediterranean since the Middle Ages. Also called rocket lettuce, it's grown in greenhouses in the Netherlands for its spicy, slightly bitter and nutty flavor.
Vreugdenhil Vegetables has cultivated and sold arugula for around 10 years now. Merijn Vreugdenhil is responsible for both cultivation and trade for Vreugdenhil Vegetables: "We were originally an agricultural supplier. We supply machines and people to the Westland greenhouses. At some point we converted an old harvester for radish into a lettuce cutter. That's when we started harvesting the arugula we sowed. "Merijn then sold that arugula to a packer who sold it through to catering establishments and German supermarkets. "When that customer asked at a certain point if I couldn't deliver more arugula, we started to try to achieve that."
Meanwhile, Vreugdenhil Vegetables grows the Mediterranean vegetable year-round on about 10 to 12 hectares. The majority of this comes from the greenhouses at De Vries in Hook of Holland, where radish is also grown alongside arugula. "We are trying to be on the market all year round. One year it works better than the other, but with good varieties and the right climate it works pretty well. Our greenhouses are heated, but that is purely to keep the greenhouses free of frost in winter. After all, arugula is a vulnerable crop. You sow it and if the leaves are big enough, you can harvest them. For one hectare you need about 2.6 million seeds. In the summer, when growth is fast, it happens that harvesting can take place after only 23 days. In winter, sometimes three months pass before the leaves are big and ripe enough. After harvesting for the first time, the crop grows out again and, if it's not too warm, it can be harvested again."
The vast majority of the arugula that Merijn grows, about 90 to 95 percent, goes to the processing industry. A large part of it has also been sold before the harvest. "It is important for us to grow enough, but not too much. With five pallets too many it can be difficult to get rid of the arugula. For example, a tomato sells easier. You are still attached to the vegetable processor. Actually, we are an extension of it."
"Actually you have to see it like that", continues Merijn, "you just need mass, as with any product in the agricultural sector at this time. That way you can keep some, because the margins are very small. That's what it comes down to. There's a reason why there is a scaling up of the entire sector. Whether that trend continues the future will tell, but I don't believe that we're going to shrink. That goes against the trends. But it still depends on your business partners. If they grow, you have to grow."
The arugula of Vreugdenhil Vegetables that isn't sold directly, doesn't go to auction. "In the event that we have too much, we will look for other buyers, even though it's often difficult. You don't sell it on the free market. Usually, if you have too much, other growers also have that. The opposite is also the case with shortages." Merijn is not in close contact with fellow growers. "There are no study clubs or anything like that, I don't really speak to my peers. Everyone just does their thing and it should stay that way."
The market for arugula is currently well distributed according to Merijn. 2018 was a 'normal' year. "There are a few large processors that use the majority of the arugula. As long as nothing changes there, the market is stable. Should one of these processors disappear for some reason, then you suddenly have a completely different market situation. The excess will then be redistributed. As a grower, you will then have to make sure that it works for you."
In the supermarket, arugula is usually sold in bags, whether or not in a mix with other types of lettuce. At Vreugdenhil Vegetables, most arugula goes out in bulk packaging. "We don't work with small packages. Most arugula goes to the vegetable processors in large pool trays. We only have one packaging line in the processing space to flow pack kilograms. These bags often go via traders to the processing industry or to wholesale markets in Germany." The reason for packaging is simple: without packaging the product will not remain fresh enough. "Arugula, which goes into storage or is transported in 4 kilogram containers, usually stays fresh. This is more difficult with smaller quantities. If arugula is cooled in smaller quantities, there is much more wind circulation between the boxes and the arugula dries out. That does not happen with a flow pack."
The supermarkets impose increasingly stringent requirements on the growers. 'On the way to PlanetProof', formerly Milieukeur, is rapidly becoming the new standard. Vreugdenhil Vegetables is expecting certification in early January. The last analysis by the inspection body was carried out just before Christmas. "In two to three years, everyone will meet these sustainability requirements. I think that's a good thing. Ultimately we have to grow arugula, grow vegetables, but also live on the planet. If you can't live anymore, you don't have to grow arugula anymore," says Merijn. "The coming generations must still be able to enjoy the earth. If we can lead the way in the Netherlands, we have to do that. Then the rest will follow automatically."
This article appeared earlier in edition 10, 32nd volume of Primeur. See www.agfprimeur.nl.
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