When the tomato prices are disappointing once again, and the competition in Spain is able to get higher prices for their tomatoes on the clock. Then …, you go check things out in Spain, right? This is something many Dutch tomato growers have been doing the last couple of years, but to this day none have brought their tomatoes to the Spanish clock. Why not?

“How easy is it to load up a few trucks with tomatoes and drive to Spain”, is how Edwin de la Combé of tomato nursery CombiVliet puts the thought that many growers must have had at some point. And the fact that growers have these thoughts becomes all the more apparent after going around the fields. “Thought about it, yes. But I never got to it”, says Leo van der Lans of tomato nursery Lans.

Leo van der Lans and Edwin de la Combé

'Smart' Dutch people
According to Edwin, he was looking for opportunities to sell tomatoes on the Spanish clock this year. “We got into contact with some of the larger Spanish auctions and soon found out that it was indeed too good to be true. In a way, you know it’s not that simple. Spanish people are fairly chauvinistic and the higher prices that seep through into the Netherlands on a regular basis, after researching, appear to only be true for the Spanish products. So not for the ‘smart’ Dutch people, as we found out.”

Leo did not go as far as Edwin, but he also put some serious thought into auctioning on the Spanish clock. “We didn’t find it interesting enough at this point. According to us, it regards a percentage of our production that is so small, it wouldn’t pay off to start an entire organization just for that. Also, the prices in Spain are high for a reason. There isn’t much being supplied, so it is only logical for the prices to skyrocket if the demand is high enough. When you then go to the clock as a Dutch person with a lot of product, the price plummets, while you are also at risk of competing against yourself. Given that we also sell tomatoes in Spain through different channels.”

Local-for-local a bottleneck?
This is something that many other tomato growers do, so they know the situation in Spain though not everyone knows the clock prices. These days, growers deliver their product to customers directly on a contract base more often, which makes thinking about auctioning on the Spanish clock obsolete. The customers then look for the best markets to sell the products, which means transportation costs are not the biggest obstacle. As long as the trucks are nice and full, the costs of transportation are manageable, as experience will tell.

Getting the highest price is something everybody wants, whether or not this is done through the sales organization like in the case of CombiVliet and Lans. In both cases it’s the Harvest House that arranges the sale of the tomatoes. But both Edwin and Leo keep their eyes and ears open. “This year in July for example, the prices of vine tomatoes were two to three times higher in France then they were in the Netherlands”, says Edwin. “But again, that was just the case for French tomatoes. The French are only willing to pay these prices for French products. They still want the Dutch products though, but not for the same price.”

Chauvinism is not just a Spanish thing
Moreover, the chauvinistic mentality is not just true for only the ‘foreign countries’. The Netherlands partakes in it as well. “Although the people in the Netherlands are a bit more easy-going when it comes down to the products, so not only the tomatoes," says Edwin. “It is a fact however, that when Spanish tomatoes are sold in the grocery stores during winter, the Dutch products are still valued higher than the Spanish ones. You see a similar trend in Moroccan tomatoes, which are also being sold through Harvest House. Those tomatoes are also valued lower.”

Then the question remains, whether or not the consumer is willing to pay more for products grown in their own country. For argument's sake we will not go into that discussion right now, but local-for-local has very much become a trend, and this is not helpful when planning for an auction abroad. “You see this trend everywhere, for example in Germany, where the region the product is from can already make a difference when trying to be classified as ‘local’”, Edwin says. “To avoid this as a Dutch grower you can choose to look into growing your product over there. Then it becomes a local product, even though you grow only a few meters from the Dutch border in Germany.”

The ever ‘smaller’ growing world is convenient for the growers
About ten to fifteen years ago, local-for-local was a much smaller issue, in Leo’s experience. However, people also weren’t looking at the option of auctioning on the Spanish clock that much back then. Why? “In the ‘old’ Europe, the borders were still real borders. Custom control and strict border enforcement were real obstacles for transportation back then unlike now.”

Growing companies makes people look elsewhere
And the fact that the individual tomato growers weren’t as big back then undoubtedly plays a part as well. Currently, CombiVliet is cultivating 128 hectares of tomatoes, Lans has 73 hectares, both have cultivation spread across multiple locations in the Netherlands. It’s the consequence of that famous expending of companies. The amount of hectares increases, while the amount of individual companies decreases. This same development is happening in Belgium at the moment, but the option of going to the Spanish clock hasn’t been explored as seriously as in the Netherlands. The companies aren’t ‘as big there as they are with at neighbors to the South’. Also the larger companies often cultivate multiple specialties that they are able to sell without a problem.

Is auctioning on the Spanish clock a utopian situation then? No. It most definitely isn’t, says Leo. “It is something to keep an eye on for sure. Each year is different and each year new situations and chances arise. The world is getting smaller. Make of it what you will.” The same is true for the price Dutch tomatoes could get on the Spanish clock, because that is also something which no one has any experience with (yet).

The article appeared previously in the 10th edition, 33rd volume of the AGF Primeur trade journal

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Edwin de la Combé



Leo van der Lans