Growing from around 2,500 plants to a million plants. That really is a success story. Luc and Steven grow strawberries all year round. Clients sometimes come from afar to taste them. The strawberry vending machine near the entrance of the company turns out to be a veritable magnet for hungry visitors.
The strawberries from Moerkerke turn out to be a desirable delicacy, both for the regular consumer and bakers and restaurants in the region. But how do you grow from 12 rows of strawberry plants to a profitable company with more than six hectares in hardly thirty years?
Depestel is one of the participants in the publicity campaign ' Schoon Boeren' in Northwest Flanders.
Short chain avant la lettre
Luc: "We started with nothing. There was nothing here. We started in 1989 with larger vegetables, beans, leek, cauliflower, sprouts, a little bit of everything. There were also strawberries. When we started we had twelve rows, 2500 plants."
Luc and Maria opted for direct sales right from the start, the short chain before the term was even used. Luc: "We tried to sell as much as possible from home, and this kept on growing. We dropped the other crops one by one, until only strawberries were left in 1995. In 1997, we started with substrate cultivation, and that worked. People were happy with the quality and kept coming back. After that, we expanded quickly."
Meanwhile, Steven and Iwona have invested in the parental company. The nursery keeps on growing, with a focus on sustainable management.
The company only uses LED lighting, good for both the environment and the wallet. While bulbs used to consume 100 Watt, the modern LEDs only use 7 Watt. The calculation is quickly done. On the shed and the housing of the seasonal workers, Luc has installed solar panels and a solar boiler.
But in strawberry cultivation, water is without a doubt the most valuable resource, which has to be used sparingly. Luc: "We require 400 liters of water per running meter of racks to grow, and 1 hectare has 7000 meters of racks. We recover up to 30% of those 400 liters of water. The remaining 70% is used by the plants. The water used to drip onto the floor, but because of the gutters we placed, we're collecting the water. It is decontaminated and reused, so none of the water is lost."
The rain water is collected in a gigantic basin. With a capacity of 13 million liters, you would think it would more than suffice, but in a hot and dry summer such as 2018, even that wasn't enough. Luc: "We constructed a second basin of 18 million liters, so we have around 30 million in total. Hopefully, we will be able to fill it this winter, otherwise we will face the same problem next year. It is no use to construct a basin if it doesn't fill up because there's not enough rain."
Not only water is recovered, but also the CO2 from the greenhouses. Luc: "We have a buffer tank installed for this purpose. During the day it is filled with CO2 released from the greenhouse. We do release CO2 into the atmosphere, but can reintroduce it into the greenhouse. Instead of purchasing liquid CO2, we use our own CO2. It is a completely closed system."
A large part of the harvest is intended for home sales in their own vending machines. In this success story, continuity is an important factor. "To make selling from home a success, you have to make sure you have a continuous supply of strawberries, around ten months per year. And that means you have to have a lot of plants."
The company of the Depestel family is also popular with schools, groups, and clubs, who are treated to a very warm and tasteful welcome. Luc: "We give them a tour of the company and they can also taste the strawberries. When schools come to visit, they can pick some strawberries for themselves. The week after you can hear the stories at the vending machine. 'My daughter or son was here, and it was great.' First they are allowed to taste as much as they want, and when they are done, they get a pot to take home and show to their parents." That's how to turn visitors into ambassadors of your product.
Beer and ice cream
For picking, Luc turns to seasonal workers, on average about 25 to 30 in the high season. Luc and Maria want to give their pickers a real sense of belonging, and so they provide proper free housing at the company. But there is more. "A good atmosphere is very important. On Saturday afternoons, we all sit down together and have a beer. During summer, we hand out ice creams. Our pickers appreciate these gestures."
Picking strawberries all day long is quite taxing, and so the ergonomics of picking were thought of. Luc: "It used to be done by bending over, but this is very, very bad for your back. We have placed the plants at the proper height to facilitate picking."
A barcode system in which every row of plants has a unique code makes sure the quality of the strawberries is monitored. "In this way, we can adjust our pickers and give tips to keep the quality of our product high."