With 20 hectares, the strawberry greenhouse of Dutch Berries was already the largest in the Netherlands when it opened in 2018, and 2 years later, the company expanded by another 4 hectares. Meanwhile, the nursery is equipped with 14 hectares of LED lighting in order to supply strawberries all year round.
Boudewijn van der Wal and his son Job. Pictures by www.at10.nl
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"Just one more bowl. Or two." During Kom in de Kas, the open days of Dutch horticulture, the sliced strawberries from the greenhouses of Dutch Berries in Zuilichem, Gelderland, are in great demand. Also, normally the consumer knows the way to the nursery, judging by the large farm machine in front of the company. However, the strawberries from Dutch Berries go much further afield. Via Veiling Zaltbommel, they go to supermarkets in the Netherlands, Norway, Germany, Belgium, and England, and the top segment can even be found in Japan. No wonder, given that the company harvests an estimated 200,000,000 of them every year - the equivalent of over 3 million kilos of strawberries. In Nieuwaal, Kreling Aardbeien, part of the private family business GK Group just like Dutch Berries, has another 7.5 hectares of strawberry cultivation. In total, the group has almost 50 hectares of greenhouses.
Partly due to projects like this, strawberry cultivation under glass has grown strongly in the Netherlands in recent years. Commercial director Boudewijn van der Wal, who, together with Gijbert Kreling, manages Dutch Berries, has spoken about this growth before and about the retailers' wish for year-round Dutch strawberries. To meet that demand, the company has expanded the nursery with another 4 hectares in recent years and opted for LED lighting. The Signify lights were first hung on 4 hectares, and later the lighting solution of Mechatronix was chosen for another 10 hectares so that they could harvest from a total of 14 hectares all year round. With 3 CHPs of 8.6 MW, the lights are provided with energy, and a blackout screen completes the story.
These are currently important developments because costs in strawberry cultivation are also rising sharply. The company keeps a grip on the energy costs with contracts agreed upon in advance, with LED lighting, and with solar panels: with 1350 of them, they supply their own cooling with energy. But there are more costs that are rising sharply these years: fertilizers and the cost of substrates, for example. Currently, the company works with coco and peat that is reused after cultivation, but it is being investigated whether similar results can be achieved with coco that can be used for several years. Thanks to the large-scale mixing installation for fertilizers, which is fully automated, they also keep a close eye on this: the automatic bin filler for liquid fertilizers and the 2 buffer tanks (5.5 million liters of water!) provide the plants with accurate fertilization. The 5.5 million liter buffer tank is used to buffer the heat from the CHPs and use it for cultivation at the right time.
Labour is another point of attention at the company, which employs 240 people during the high season. Besides the international workforce, for which Dutch Berries has a number of its own living units, a lot of workers come from the region as well. "Especially in the soft fruit industry, the quality of the employees is very important. Strawberries are, of course, a fragile product, so we pay a lot of attention to that", says Boudewijn. Various automation solutions have also been implemented in the greenhouse to keep a close eye on labor. Thanks to the lighting, the demand for labor can also be spread more evenly throughout the year.
Since last year, there has been another special worker in the company: Job van der Wal, son of Boudewijn. He has been working as a junior cultivation manager in the company for more than a year, a role he is already familiar with from earlier internships and working during the new construction. At the moment, he is fully responsible for the cultivation at Dutch Berries.