The interview’s location has changed this time due to the current circumstances. We are not speaking to Steven Oosterloo, Flevo Berry’s Commercial Director at his office in Ens, the Netherlands, but at his home. At a suitable distance, we asked him about the chances of year-round strawberry cultivation in Northern Europe and other developments. “We can say that this year, for the first time, there is a turning point in the strawberry world,” says Steven. “The time of growers having only one variety is over. With our varieties, such as the Sonsation and Favori, there is more diversity on the field than only Elsanta strawberries.”
Steven Oosterloo, Flevo Berry’s Commercial Director
Although Steven is working from home, not everyone at Flevo Berry can. The company’s core business is, after all, breeding strawberries, and that is not possible in a kitchen. Certainly not when spring is in the air, because despite Flevo Berry's mission - to give farmers the opportunity to be able to cultivate strawberries year-round - spring remains a peak period. “With this weather, we are hard at work planting.”
Marcel Suiker, breeder and R & D director at Flevo Berry
“Our breeders are busy implementing the necessary buffers to anticipate possible future staff shortages due to illness. If that happens, the strawberries will, after all, not stop growing. We currently have several potential varieties in the greenhouses, and then it is important not to lag behind. We are now looking closely at which selections are good and which are not. So, we are working ahead of schedule,” continues Steven.
'Favori has been chosen as the Netherlands’ tastiest strawberry several times already’
Flevo Berry mainly breeds strawberries in greenhouses. “That is no longer an exception with strawberry breeders, but we were the first to do so. We still do tests in full soil because many growers who use our varieties in Germany and Scandinavia also farm in this way. We have, however, noticed a shift in growing techniques. For example, full-soil strawberry cultivation is increasingly making way for sheltered and greenhouse cultivation."
"In one country, developments are more rapid than in another," adds the Commercial Director. "For instance, in the United Kingdom, almost no-one does full soil cultivation anymore, and it is quickly declining in the Netherlands too. In Germany, there is still quite a lot of full soil farming, but growers there are rapidly switching to protected cultivation. Protected cultivation is a smaller, cheaper step toward greenhouse cultivation."
‘New, Dutch full soil strawberries’ - many salesmen try to convince clients to buy strawberries with this kind of slogan. “People still feel any given season’s strawberries are the tastiest. And, for example, in Germany, the start of the strawberry season is not yet as important as the start of the asparagus season. That is certainly reflected in strawberry sales."
"These still usually always peak in the spring and summer months. Yet, we see people are increasingly open to out-of-season strawberries, such as in the winter. The demand is now still low, but we notice it increasing every year. Just like with tomatoes. These were also always a seasonal product, and now, people do not know any different anymore.”
If we, however, consider tomatoes, thoughts quickly move to tasteless tomatoes, when they are not in the correct season. “There was certainly a time when Germans, for instance, were talking about the Wasserbombe,” laughs Steven. “Fortunately, that time has passed for tomatoes. There are also many different varieties on the market, like cherry and snack tomatoes, and different colored tomatoes. It is just to illustrate how we hope to envisage the strawberry’s future. The strawberry market is now very monotonous. That can change.”
Flevo Berry is, however, skipping the tasteless period. “We have three important priorities. Flavor, year-round cultivation, and sustainability. How a strawberry tastes is crucial. We then also speak of the First Moment Of Truth (FMOT) and the Second Moment Of Truth (SMOT). Growers have always urged us to take this into account. Especially those in Germany and Scandinavia, where there is a lot of direct sales to consumers.
"Strawberries sell first because of their color, aroma, and appearance - FMOT. People, however, only return for more, if the strawberry also tastes good - SMOT. We have always taken this strongly into account, and we value the product’s taste highly. It is then no wonder that ‘the tastiest Dutch strawberries’ - the Favori - is part of our assortment,” explains Steven.
When it comes to year-round cultivation, that is already possible with Flevo Berry’s strawberry varieties. “Combined with the correct cultivation techniques, we can achieve that, both with everbearing and June-bearing kinds. Everbearing varieties are usually harvested between May and October, but you can also plant them in August, and then you have winter production. The same is true for those that bear fruit in June. These strawberries are usually, as the name suggests, harvest for six weeks in June, but, thanks to breeding, we can plant these in winter too."
Breeding is a true art
"These June-bearing varieties have higher yields in a short time than the everbearing strawberries. Our goal is to develop varieties for the market that need minimal external effort to make them grow optimally. For winter breeding, we, therefore, traveled the world looking for a cultivation program that specializes in winter strawberries," Oosterloo says. "In 2015, we eventually found this in South Korea, in the Damhyang-Gun province’s strawberry growers breeding program. This allowed us to exchange genetic material between the countries.”
According to Steven, year-round production helps strawberry growers. “Year-round farming has various benefits. For instance, since growers can remain on the market throughout the year, once the season starts anew, they need not try to push imported strawberries from Spain, Morocco, and Egypt out of the market. We usually hand the market over to these countries in January. We can also better utilize the more than 500 hectares of strawberry greenhouses in the Netherlands."
Strawberry plants in Flevo Berry’s greenhouse
"Sales can be better distributed, too, which ensures improved returns for the farmers. To reduce cost prices, we also focus on breeding strawberries than need minimal input. In this way, we hope to be able to greatly reduce the use of pesticides by making our strawberry varieties more resistant or tolerant. For example, we have been able to tackle the root disease, Phytophthora, in strawberries successfully. Before, a grower would lose 10,000 to 15,000 plants out of 100,000. This risk is reduced thanks to more robust genes,” Steven goes on to say.
Year-round production, optimal use of Dutch greenhouses, and resistant strawberries all contribute to the sustainability of strawberry farming in the Netherlands. “We started with developments ten years ago already, since that is how much time is needed to breed a strawberry variety successfully. To achieve this, we can currently offer a nice range with our nice range of Flair, Sonsation, Faith, Florentina, and Favori varieties. There has also been a shift this year, where strawberry cultivation no longer rests with a single variety, namely the Elsanta. It is, therefore, great that we made the right choice.”
Part of the Flevo Berry team, with Steven Oosterloo on the far left
It was, however, impossible to predict the coronavirus outbreak, especially ten years ago. “It is currently casting a dark shadow above the entire strawberry cultivation sector, especially when it comes to harvesting, which is very labor-intensive, and on consumption. Unfortunately, the development of a strawberry picking robot - which is being fully pursued - is still in its infancy. A lot of strawberries need to be eaten this summer to support farmers,” concludes Steven. (TD)