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Midi cucumbers: from novelty to fully-fledged product

A couple of years ago, a new option was added to the Dutch cucumber assortment: the midi cucumber. Two growers currently serve the British market with it. Using those first few years of knowledge, this year, the product will be on supermarket shelves as a fully-fledged distinctive product.

The cucumber variety was introduced in 2022. "We did an initial short test," begins Koen Saris, director of Wijnen Square Crops, looking back in mid-March, at the start of midi cucumbers' third season. This company has two locations in the Netherlands, with Pieter Wijnen and Ton Smeets assisting Koen at the helm. In the summer of 2022, it proudly announced it was "taking the English market by storm" with this new cucumber. "We saw demand, but also that placing our product beside the 'portions' didn't work well."

Those 'portions' are standard cucumbers sliced in half. These are sought-after in the British market, but are also prone to being wasted and need packaging. "In 2020, we started exploring the possibilities of a midi cucumber grown specifically for that segment. That was with supermarket chain Sainsbury's and our trading partner Terra Natura International (TNI)," says Koen. They found a variety and, thus, began the cultivation of the 'midi' cucumber. These weigh about 180 grams and have their stalk removed during harvest.

After gaining know-how in 2022, they returned on a large scale in 2023, but stores did not place the mini cucumbers near the portions. "Our product was in about 20 Sainsbury's stores last year. They're no longer next to the portions, which worked out well. That's why we're scaling up again this season and supplying more stores." Wijnen Square Crops now covers about half to a full hectare.

Unpackaged portion replacement
Moreover, there is a second Dutch supplier of this product. In 2022, Sam van Duifhuizen, a Fresh Valley board member, met someone already familiar with midi cucumbers. That year, the rapidly growing greenhouse company bought a greenhouse in the Netherlands and started cultivating this product. "It started with a few thousand square meters. We supply the product per customer demand to our trading partners, who, in turn, supply UK supermarket chains," says Sam at the beginning of April.

Fresh Valley now has a hectare of midi cucumbers, and harvesting started in early March. "We're delivering in full. We begin when the Spanish and Moroccan crops end," he explains. They prefer always having two retail suppliers. Sainsbury's really took to this product, Koen notes. "They immediately saw the potential and started communicating better about the product last year. There are great benefits regarding reducing both food and plastic waste," he says.

Both Dutch growers supply their mini cucumbers 'naked,' i.e., unpackaged. In a March 2024 newsletter, when the season began, Sainsbury's wrote that thanks to this product replacing the portion, they will save 15 tons of plastic annually. After being delivered to trading partners, Fresh Valley's midi cucumbers end up at several UK supermarket chains, Sam knows. "Sainsbury's carries them naked. I'm not entirely sure about the other chains."

Won't replace minis
Wijnen Square Crops and Fresh Valley both also cultivate standard and mini cucumbers. The midi variety will not replace the latter. "In lit cultivation, those are growing compared to last year," notes Koen. They would like to see that expand further in Limburg. "We're now well versed in this product's harvest forecast and are happy to grow our acreage alongside the demand." The same is true for Fresh Valley, which sees growth in midi and mini cucumbers. Sam: "The mini market is a growth one." And midi cucumbers are a nice addition to the package. "We think it's a wonderful product. We're sure we can keep serving the UK market well with it, and expect growth. It's nice that we can do this together as Dutch growers."

Why do British growers not do the same? Neither Koen nor Sam has an answer. Koen believes that as the product matures, more growers will join. "But the UK is still heavily import-dependent," he adds. Sam points out that midi cucumbers are a big product in Eastern Europe, too, but truly supplying that market is not (yet) possible. It has its own channels, and you cannot just start growing midi cucumbers.

"Cultivation isn't straightforward yet, especially in the first few years. It takes plenty of energy to master and choose the right varieties," Sam explains. Koen speaks of 'a labor, energy-intensive crop'. "Our partners and we have cost prices reasonably under control. We call such a crop a 'contract cultivation'. We agree on volume and price with producers before cultivation begins." No day trade is available for the midi cucumbers.

A winter crop, perhaps?
A winter crop is a possible next step. British supermarket chains are up for that. Koen: "If the product does well again this year, we'll speak with TNI about the upcoming winter and 2025's summer cultivation this summer. We aren't going to grow abroad." Sam already had contact about winter cultivation, but "that has, so far, come to nothing." Why? "Partly because we'd already filled and sold much of our acreage, and partly because there's stiff competition from Spain and Morocco."

"Our customers are, nevertheless, delighted with the quality we deliver," he says. Koen points that out, too. Midi cucumbers are a good addition to the cucumber assortment. "What we started doing sounds logical, yet it took five years. You don't realize something new overnight, but with retail on board and a good format, good taste, shelf life, and price, a product can gradually and genuinely mature," he concludes.

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