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Dutch Rhododendron grower Frans Kortenhorst was looking for a way to get rid of weeds and moss in his pots for good. He cut squares out of a roll of cling film and a bin liner and secured them around the top of the pot with a rubber band. In the middle he made a hole for the plant. Six years later, this idea has a name and it has the support of his horticultural supplier.

With his engineering background, rhododendron grower Frans Kortenhorst from Heeten in the east of the Netherlands is always looking for ways to innovate and automate his business processes. But his best ideas come during quiet periods at the nursery. He was fed up with having to remove weeds and moss by hand to get the plants ready for delivery. “Having 300,000 pots pass through your hands is a massive job that has to be done every year.” Laughing, he says that preferring an easy life makes a healthy starting point for innovation and encourages him to optimise and get creative.

Weed and moss problem

According to René Janssen, Substrate Product Manager at horticultural suppliers Horticoop, the Cleanpot System is an enormous improvement. Unsurprisingly, their enthusiasm has resulted in collaboration with Frans Kortenhorst.
The weed and moss problem in pot plant cultivation is tackled by covering the surface of the pots. Bark chips go quite a way to reducing weeds and moss, but not enough for Kortenhorst’s liking. “The retail channel is not very happy with the stuff either,” the grower says. “Bark makes a lot of mess: it lies loose on the surface of the pot, it falls on the shop floor, on the conveyor belt in the greenhouse and in the customer’s car – those kinds of complaints.”

Step by step

The idea of covering the pots with film was something Kortenhorst thought worth trying. He ran a trial with both transparent and dark film on five pots in the first year, followed by thirty pots in the second year. It immediately became clear that the film didn’t harm the plants. The transparent film was dropped straight away, but the dark film suppressed weed and moss growth completely. All the additional benefits were an added bonus. “We cut our watering by 25% and I got rid of Sciarid fly in one fell swoop,” he says.
Kortenhorst designed a machine to fit the film to the pots and built the prototype in his own workshop. “We introduced it at our nursery in stages – 10,000 pots in the first year, 100,000 in the second year, and our total production of 300,000 after that.”

Longer shelf life

Retailers have welcomed the system. Kortenhorst made sure of that before introducing it throughout his operation. Most of his dwarf rhododendrons are sold in Lidl Europe stores. The most positive aspects for the retailers were the longer shelf life and the fact that the pots were cleaner to work with. The shelf life of the plants is a good four days longer because the potting soil stays moist. What is more, most consumers don’t even notice the film to begin with when they buy the plant. They have to remove it when they get home, of course, along with the handle.
However, from the point of view of sustainability, it is still plastic, and that needs work. Kortenhorst: “We would really like to switch to a biodegradable material. But while the pot, the label and the cover are still all made of plastic, it is better if the film is plastic too. Then they can all go into the recycling together.”

Wide range of uses

A substrate specialist from Lentse Potgrond (a division of Horticoop) spotted the film on the pots during a routine customer visit around six years ago, and it immediately caught his attention. Janssen envisages a wide range of uses for cover film in the trade channel. “We were very impressed with the idea,” he says. “After all, the use of film also has a bearing on the growing medium. It doesn’t physically touch it, as there has to be a 2 cm air buffer between the film and the potting compost for oxygen exchange and to stop mildew from forming.”
Horticoop is keen to raise awareness of the Cleanpot System because it could have potential for many growers and groups of crops. The company has therefore worked with Kortenhorst, the inventor, and machine builders Linthorst Snijtechniek to develop a machine that combines potting up, applying the film and planting the plants in one fluid movement.
Apart from the great advantage of reducing moss and weed growth, the initiators report a whole host of other beneficial effects that occur in the pot. First off, Janssen mentions the homogeneous moisture distribution in the pot. That is because there is no transpiration taking place; the water condenses against the film and drops back into the growing medium. It also reduces the amount of crop protection products, water and fertiliser needed and extends the shelf life of the plant.

Specific reasons

According to Janssen, this is an interesting concept for many ornamentals. From the point of view of sustainability, the water efficiency aspect is something that is bound to appeal to all growers, he believes. “It is also a sustainable way of dealing with soil pests. There are some specific reasons as well. In cyclamen, for example, the film can prevent a botrytis attack on the bottom leaves. And in orchids the system can stop roots crossing into other pots. Sometimes the roots from one pot will grow into other pots nearby, and when you pick up the pot, you drag the other plant along with it.”
The more experience growers gain with this system, the longer the list of applications and benefits gets. Bunnik Plants from Bleiswijk in the west of the Netherlands are also testing the system. Improving shelf life in the supply chain is an important issue for them. Kortenhorst again: “If it was only about moss and weeds, it would have died a slow death. But when it is a question of sales or no sales, then it’s a no-brainer.”

Running own business

Kortenhorst runs the 2.5 hectare rhododendron nursery with his sister and brother-in-law. Plastic film greenhouses are not what you’d necessarily expect to see in the middle of verdant countryside resplendent with farms, villas, cows and sheep. But the oldest greenhouses have been here for almost 30 years.
His sister Gonny set up the nursery after completing her horticultural training, on the spot where their parents’ cows used to graze. Her husband Jos joined her five years later. And five years after that Frans decided to give up his job as a mechanical engineer at a machinery factory and join them. “What attracted me to running your own business is that you can shape it the way you want it.”

Time for innovation

Today’s nursery looks nothing like the one that started out all those years ago. Back then they grew a wide range of plants which they sold locally, focusing mainly on the retail market. Twenty years ago they decided to sell their products via Flora Holland and gradually reduced the size of their product range. These days Kortenhorst is well known as a specialist grower of dwarf rhododendrons. The plants go to retail and all sales take place by auction. The bulk of the plants are exported.
With the exception of the two busy periods – when the cuttings are planted and in the selling season – the three entrepreneurs do all the work themselves. “We are very happy with our present size; we wouldn’t want to get any bigger. We make time to innovate, which we think is very important and fits well with who we are,” Kortenhorst concludes.

Summary

It started out as a solution for suppressing weeds and moss in pots, but the system created by grower and inventor Frans Kortenhorst is much more than that. With a simple piece of plastic film on the pot, the benefits are there for the asking. The system has nothing but beneficial effects during production, for retailers and for the consumer at home, he says. The concept also offers scope for a wider range of applications in horticulture.

Text: Suzan Crooijmans. Images: Rikkert Harink.

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Stan Vander Waal got his first taste of working in horticulture when he was just 13 years old. His father switched from crop and dairy farming to growing flowers and plants, moving the family from Iowa (USA) to Canada and setting up Rosedale Greenhouses & Farm in British Columbia (B.C.). At the age of 20, after spending a few years working in the pig farming business, he rejoined his father in the greenhouse operation. He particularly enjoys the combination of production and sales, and has since built up the business into a three-facility, over 23 ha.

Stan Vander Waal founded his own company, Rainbow Greenhouses, in 1985 together with his wife, Wilma. From just 280 m2 for brokering potted plants and cut flowers in Seattle, the grower became a wholesale/broker for chain stores, florists and garden centres in northern B.C. and Alberta in 1986. In 1987, they purchased a greenhouse operation on South Sumas Road in Chilliwack, approximately 20 kilometres from the family’s Rosedale operation.
In July 2003, Vander Waal acquired his second facility by purchasing Rosedale Greenhouse when his father retired. That operation has been expanded several times since then and is now a production site totalling 35,000 m2. “We also significantly expanded the South Sumas complex in 2013, adding a large new Prins glass greenhouse structure with ebb and flood floors. This brought the facility to 77,000 m2 in total. The rest is double poly houses with concrete flood floors,” comments the grower.

High-activity area

Rainbow’s third facility is located in Iron Springs, southern Alberta. “We built it in 2005 to reduce the delivery time and costs by being closer to our customers. At 11 ha it’s our biggest facility and also has the largest seasonal component. We try to keep most of our year-round production – such as foliage plants and indoor colour – in Chilliwack which is the main shipping point,” Vander Waal adds.
For this grower, a typical season starts in mid-December when the first cutting material is brought in. The propagation areas are filled up first. “This is a high-turn, high-activity area which gets increasingly busy from mid-January. At peak planting time around 15 April, our greenhouses are bursting at the seams.”
The first early spring shipping starts in mid-February to the more temperate areas on the west coast of Canada. Then the main shipping starts around the third week of April and the spring peak runs until early June. “June is good month, but sales taper off quite quickly from 1 July onwards. We start propagating the poinsettias in June which are all shipped by 20 December. They fill about a third of the area. In the autumn we run a few small programmes such as chrysanthemums and in-and-out floral programmes,” continues the grower.

An arid climate

The three facilities are located in two very different climate regions. Chilliwack, in the Fraser Valley, B.C., has a very mild climate with an average yearly rainfall of 168 centimetres, average summer temperatures of 23ºC and average winter temperatures of 10ºC.
Meanwhile Alberta is an arid climate with hotter summers of up to 35ºC but also harsher winters, where snow is still a possibility until the end of April and frost remains a risk until late May. “We have Argus climate control systems in all three facilities which take care of the humidity, temperature, irrigation and so on. Everything is completely automated. The crops grow very differently in Alberta; there is more light, but more heating is required too. It could be minus 35 degrees but I still need to keep the greenhouse frost-free, even if it’s empty.”

Gas and wood waste

In Alberta, the heating is currently based on a combination of coal and natural gas, but that’s changing, according to Vander Waal: “Coal is no longer part of our long-term objective for heating and we’re switching 100% to gas, partly due to the environmental pressure on coal. Inside the greenhouses we have floor heat under the concrete floors and the rest is monorail heat.”
Stemming from the energy crisis in 1998/1999, the heating in Chilliwack is a combination of gas and wood waste. “We get the waste from a supplier of pines killed off by the pine beetle, and also from a manufacturer of fence posts. In peak times we burn around three large trailers of wood waste a day, and the rest of the heat comes from gas. Renewable energy systems are a great concept but they require lot of maintenance and due diligence, which can actually end up costing you energy in other ways,” he comments.

150 merchandisers go into stores

Rainbow is a full-service grower selling directly to major retailers including Home Depot, Walmart and Costco throughout British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. It supports its retail customers at store level with marketing and merchandising programmes. “In the peak spring season we have a team of more than 150 merchandisers who go into stores to ensure that the product looks good on benches, that the displays are clean and neat. The biggest challenge in a retail environment is the lack of knowledge of plants and how to take care of them. Plants and flowers are an impulse business. If they don’t look good, consumers aren’t going to buy,” explains Vander Waal.
“The huge geographical expanse of Canada means that our average delivery distance to a customer is 800 kilometres,” he continues. The grower has its own fleet of 20 temperature-controlled trucks and trailers. “However in the peak spring season, our volume reaches upwards of 30 trailers leaving the B.C. facility every day and 40-plus trailers a day from Alberta, so we also work with various carriers. The average order process time, from getting the order to delivery to the store, is usually less than 36 hours.”

10% more product out of the area

Automation has become an important way of completing day-to-day tasks. As Vander Waal says, “When I look at agriculture today, and especially the greenhouse business, it really is a business and we have to make our decisions based on analysis of costs, sales and margins.” The recent expansion in Chilliwack included a new propagation block with LED lighting and a new WPS conveyor system. “With a turn rate of 12 to 16 times per year, the propagation area has the most active movement so we wanted to cut out steps such as loading/unloading carts. The conveyor system helps us increase the pace a little, improves our use of space and enables us to get 10% more product out of the area.”

Better microclimate

In another step to improve efficiency, Rainbow works with several vertically drained cultivation floors by Dutch company ErfGoed, the first of which was installed in Alberta in 2013 on around 18,500 m2. Vander Waal explains: “We were unhappy with our gravel floor because the gravel was slowly sinking into the clay soil. The capillary mat system solved two problems. It avoids the cost/effort of replacing the gravel, and also gives us complete 100 per cent water recovery. This is especially important in Alberta where our water reserves from the previous year have to last us until the next spring. Reusing the water means that we makes savings on fertiliser too. We also noticed that the floor system creates a better microclimate for the plants in Alberta’s arid climate.”

Plenty of opportunities

Since then, two of the supplier’s ebb and flood floors have been added in Chilliwack. “This allows us to water up as well as recover water. Compared with concrete, this floor significantly reduces the pressure of root disease. I’ve learnt to consider the plant’s native environment and that’s what this floor does in effect, because it keeps the root zone cooler on warm days,” he continues. A further two floors have also been installed in Alberta. “In the newest floor, a small gravel zone has been added to the multilayered capillary mat. This creates a more stable base so the floors dry just a little quicker which is useful for certain crops and gives us more control. ErfGoed have helped us to achieve the results we’re looking for,” states Vander Waal.
Yet another new block is being added in Chilliwack later this year, comprising 3 ha, and this too will include a premium floor. Vander Waal clearly still sees plenty of opportunities for expansion and further efficiency.

Summary

Rainbow Greenhouses in Canada is a privately owned wholesale grower and distributor of high-quality potted plants. Owned by Stan Vander Waal and his wife Wilma. They have been producing a wide variety of indoor, outdoor and seasonal plants for over 30 years. Having started out with just 280 m2 of greenhouse space, the company now comprises over 23 ha of production, spread across three greenhouse facilities: two in British Columbia and one in Alberta. The company is focused on maximising efficiency, primarily through automation, to achieve business success.

Text: Lynn Radford. Images: Rainbow Greenhouses.

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Apart from Vertical Farming, there are numerous hybrid cultivation initiatives taking place in and on buildings, also known as Urban Farming and Rooftop Farming. Even restaurants, supermarkets and offices are experimenting with growing fruit and vegetables in cities.

Vertical Farming is, of course, not suitable for crops that grow in an upwards direction, such as tomatoes and cucumbers. This problem was solved in Jackson (Wyoming) with the construction of an impressive building incorporating huge amounts of glass, designed by Larssen Ltd.: a very expensive building costing 3.7 million dollars, partly due to its earthquake-proof construction. Three stories of the building are dedicated to LED-illuminated Vertical Farming, with two stories reserved for herbs and leafy vegetables and the third for tomatoes. The 3,800 m2 surface area is sufficient for a production of 45,000 kg a year. The building is intended to bridge the awareness gap between horticulture and the city’s inhabitants and also provides space for education. The vegetables can be seen growing from behind a glass wall. The project received financial support through crowdfunding and the municipality is the owner of the building.

Restaurants and supermarkets

InFarm is directed at growing vegetables in big cities; in and by restaurants and the retail industry. ‘We are the new farmers and the city is our company.’ In his mind’s eye, the founder of InFarm is seeing supermarkets with multi-tier cultivation for leafy vegetables above the shelves. You simply can’t buy fresher food with fewer food miles than this! InFarm developed the Kräutergarten for the Berlin-based Metro wholesaler, just as Mirai did in Japan: a multi-tier LED-illuminated greenhouse in the supermarket. The crops grown consists primarily of herbs (basil in particular) and leafy vegetables grown on a shallow layer of water (hydroponics).

You simply can’t buy fresher food with fewer food miles than this!

InFarm also operates the UFcontainerfarm in Berlin: a container with a small greenhouse on top. Tilapia fish are bred in the container. The water from the fish is pumped up to the greenhouse, where it is used to water the plants after it has been purified. This concept is also used in London, where it is called a GrowUp Box.

Above and below ground

An outsider in Urban Farming is SkyGreens. This Singapore-based initiative grows vegetables on trays suspended in gutters. These gutters circulate vertically by means of two A-shaped pillars nine metres tall. The circulatory movement enables each plant to obtain the same amount of sunlight. The company has 1,000 of these vertical towers with 20 gutters each and produces 800 kg of vegetables a day, including Chinese cabbage, spinach and other leafy vegetables.

The London-based Farmdrop initiative produces herbs underground, in former bomb shelters.

Another outsider, but of an entirely different calibre, is the Pasona office building in Tokyo, where a myriad of plants and vegetables are grown on and in the building, which also features a dedicated Vertical Farming division. The vegetables grown here are intended for the company restaurant. In conference rooms, workspaces - in fact, all over the building - you will see tomatoes growing all the way up to the ceiling, or sweet peppers and eggplants, broccoli, lemons and even passion fruit. A total of 200 varieties of vegetables, fruit and even rice are grown here! The staff is free to pick whatever they want. The company employs a permanent staff of ten people to keep the vegetables in tip-top condition. Not everything is grown efficiently, but the project was never intended to achieve a high production rate; the concept was developed to engender awareness for food provision.

The London-based Farmdrop initiative produces herbs underground, in former bomb shelters: 30 metres below the surface. It took Farmdrop two years to conquer all the challenges of underground cultivation.

Rooftop greenhouse

Where Vertical Farming appears to be booming, there is less interest among the inhabitants of big cities for rooftop cultivation - in greenhouses, at any rate. Few people practice greenhouse horticulture on rooftops, but when it is, this is mainly in the USA.

According to GothamGreens, urban farming is all about re-establishing the connection between people and the food they eat, educating young people and nurturing the soul.

A firm called GothamGreens operates a series of rooftop greenhouses, in which leafy vegetables are grown in gutters, in New York and Chicago. The first 1400 m2 rooftop greenhouse was built in 2011, and the total surface area of GothamGreens has since risen to 16,000 m2 distributed across four sites. The biggest measures 7,000 m2 and is built on the roof of a bowling alley. According to GothamGreens, urban farming is all about re-establishing the connection between people and the food they eat, about educating young people and nurturing the soul. ‘Urban Farming will never become a primary source of food, but its impact is lasting.’ A head of lettuce grown here costs around $4 at Whole Foods, almost twice as much as conventional lettuce grown in the field and $1 more than organic lettuce.

Bright Farms also aimed to dedicate itself to rooftop cultivation, but it was forced to give up its plans due to the difficulties it encountered with permit applications and the costs, which were 20% higher in comparison to an 8.5 million dollar greenhouse built just outside of the city.

The Hague

The Swiss Urban Farms initiative in Basel built a 250 m2 rooftop greenhouse as a pilot in 2013. Three years later, in May 2016, the UF De Schilde rooftop greenhouse opened its doors in The Hague, the Netherlands. As opposed to the rooftop greenhouses in the USA, which are all on one or two-storey buildings, this greenhouse is situated on top of building six storeys tall. Greenhouse builder Van der Valk Kleijn designed an extra-sturdy greenhouse with double glazing incorporated into the walls and roof. The project’s financiers are SVn (Stimulation Fund for Public Housing) and private investors. The greenhouse collaborates with Rijk Zwaan, Koppert Biological Systems and Priva.

UF hopes to cater to 900 families who can order fresh fish and vegetables via a subscription, as well as to restaurants.

The 1,200 m2 greenhouse is the biggest rooftop greenhouse in Europe. The farm grows lettuce, micro-greens and tomatoes. The floor underneath the greenhouse is rented from the municipality of The Hague to farm fish, whose waste products are subsequently used as nutrients for the plants. Visitors can watch the cultivation process from behind a glass wall. UF hopes to cater to 900 families who can order fresh fish and vegetables via a subscription, as well as to restaurants: 500 tilapia fish a week and 50 tons of vegetables a year. UF expects the venture to be a success, mainly because consumers are enthusiastic about initiatives engaged in the local production of food.

Priva developed the necessary control technology for the project, which required an extraordinary degree of innovation taking into account all the regulations that apply to fish farming (e.g. temperature and oxygen content) and irrigation (including fertilising, temperature and electrical conductivity) for the various greenhouse sections in which lettuce, tomatoes and leafy vegetables are grown. On top of that, Priva also developed the systems for CO2 and climate control.

Canada

Lufa Farms in operates a 3,000 m2 rooftop greenhouse in Montreal (Canada) and one in Laval measuring 4,000 m2. Both were built by the Montoni Group and Kubo. The greenhouses are capable of withstanding large amounts of snow.

Verticrop combines a rooftop greenhouse with Vertical Farming, with cultivation on horizontally circulating plates in twelve tiers in a greenhouse on top of a parking garage in Vancouver (Canada). As the plates rotate slowly, all plants obtain the same amount of light and are watered and harvested at a particular point. However, the company has since gone bankrupt. The investment in both the rooftop greenhouse and a complete new cultivation system was probably too high. Additionally, crops grown using this system tend not to grow as profusely due to the limited amount of daylight they receive.

Horticulture 3.0?

An interesting point for consideration is the extent to which the higher costs of a rooftop greenhouse are balanced against the presumed higher quality, freshness and local distribution. Or will the multi-tier cultivation of fruit, vegetables and fish under fully controlled conditions pave the way for Horticulture 3.0, with its smaller CO2 footprint, retention of local employment and higher diversity in supply as its social driving forces? In the meantime, restaurants, supermarkets and offices are all experimenting with growing their own vegetables, and urban consumers have discovered the art of growing their own food as a meaningful and pleasurable pastime.

Locally grown, super-fresh and demonstrably sustainable could very well become the new standard of reference.

The consequences are, however, very limited for the Dutch horticulture industry, which has traditionally always focused on the export of primarily herbs and leafy vegetables to other European countries. This does not detract from the fact that the industry should consider expanding its focus area to feeding mega-cities rather than ‘shifting around’ products from one location to another, as the CEO of Hoogendoorn, Martin van Gogh, recently suggested during the Greenport Annual Event. Locally grown, super-fresh and demonstrably sustainable could very well become the new standard of reference.

Text: Tuinbouwteksten.nl/Theo Brakeboer. Photo: UrbanFarmers/Martijn Zegwaard.

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Key points for attention in the online sale of fruit and vegetables are quality and food safety. Another factor to take into consideration is packaging. Can standardised packaging guarantee the desired product quality, food safety and customer experience standards?

Although no specific rules apply to online sales - as opposed to traditional sales methods - online sales channels will need to observe the same quality and food safety regulations as other food suppliers. ‘Food safety is a priority issue,’ says Nicolette Quaedvlieg, policy officer for Quality & Food Safety at het GroentenFruit Huis.

'People are less disappointed when they pick up a product at the supermarket with a quality defect than if they had bought the same product with the same quality issues online.'

She also believes that the quality of online products should be better than what is offered by supermarkets. ‘You have to take it one step further. People are less disappointed when they pick up a product at the supermarket with a quality defect than if they had bought the same product with the same quality issues online. That’s simply not acceptable to them.’ Additionally, Quaedvlieg points out that consumers purchasing produce online need information about the product’s country of origin. Online sales platforms are also required - just as shops and restaurants - to provide information about allergens, both on their websites and upon delivery to the customer.

Best quality

Martijn van Andel of JEM-id is also convinced that consumers should get the best possible quality when they order something online. ‘And that’s possible, because you leave out several links in the distribution chain. Going grocery shopping three times a week is actually ridiculous, since 90% of the products you buy are identical. Neither is grocery shopping a particularly interesting experience. There are few people who genuinely enjoy shopping for groceries.’

'Consistency in quality and freshness is only possible through short lines and foolproof chain cooperation with preferably local suppliers.'

Harrij Schmeitz of the Fresh Informationmanagement Center emphasises that the quality of online groceries not only needs to be good; it must also be consistent. ‘The consumer must not be disappointed. If consumers fail to find the quality they seek online, you will lose them and they will purchase their products elsewhere.’ Consistency in quality and freshness is, according to Machiel Reinders, senior researcher at LEI Wageningen University Research Centre, only possible through short lines and foolproof chain cooperation with preferably local suppliers. ‘Good customer service is also of paramount importance.’

Packaging

The range of packaging currently available can only partially guarantee the desired standard of quality and consumer experience, says Reinders. He indicates that there is a demand for better packaging, particularly for more delicate products. ‘Special packaging is also needed for the cooled transport of products. PostNL has conducted several experiments with Vershuys.com, for example, in which they explored the possibility of using special coolers for the shipment of fresh food products.’

'The range of packaging currently available can only partially guarantee the desired standard of quality and consumer experience.'

The researcher also points out that packaging can also enhance consumer experience through the addition of supplementary information, or visual materials, for example. ‘On the other hand, one of the trends in modern society is to desire to curb the amount of packaging waste. To put it briefly, there are still plenty of opportunities for innovation in the field of packaging fir the online market. This is one of the issues on which the Fresh ONLINE Pack project will be focusing in the next few years to come.’

Text: Tuinbouwteksten.nl/Ank van Lier. Photo: HelloFresh.com

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Machiel Reinders is a senior researcher of Marketing & Consumer Behaviour at LEI Wageningen University Research Centre. He is currently focusing on trends in the agrifood market, in which capacity he is also involved in the Fresh ONLINE Pack project. In the previous years, Reinders mapped out the existing situation and the situation that is desirable in the future with respect to the online sale of fresh produce.

This study included a mystery shopping experiment, in which products, packaging and the ordering procedure of various online sellers of fruit and vegetables were tested. ‘The study revealed that there were substantial differences not only with regard to the ordering and delivery processes, but also in respect of the product ranges, delivery frequencies, packaging and the payment methods offered.’

Critical success factors

What requirements would you need to satisfy if you wish to be successful in the online sale of fresh produce? According to Reinders, one of the biggest obstacles is logistics. How can you be sure that your fresh products will be delivered on time and in the desired manner, and in a way that is profitable to you? Door-to-door delivery is expensive, particularly when your customers have individual wishes with regard to delivery and are only willing to pay limited delivery costs.

A study conducted by Deloitte in 2015 reveals that consumers increasingly want to pick up their own groceries.

There are a few ways to keep these costs down, according to the researcher: ‘If you opt for home delivery, you can limit yourself to a specific delivery radius or ‘pick’ your orders in a decentralised manner, like at the local supermarket or greengrocer’s. Another alternative is to use pick-up points at supermarkets or community centres. The study conducted by Deloitte in 2015 reveals that consumers increasingly want to pick up their own groceries. The most important reason for this the ability to pick up your groceries when it’s most convenient to you.’

Speed and convenience

Reinders believes that opportunities abound in an online environment. Groceries can be put together according to individual specifications, or linked to a personal profile, such as a specific diet. An online environment can also offer consumers inspiration, in the form of videos, for example. Platforms like these also enable information to be shared via social media. ‘Online channels offer the ultimate in speed and convenience.’

The researcher also believes that online sales offer opportunities in the field of freshness and quality. ‘Supplying products of a consistently high quality and responding to the demands of target groups could make it easier to achieve higher profit margins. Differentiation in products range and delivery methods are also opportunities that could be explored. Also, differentiation raises efficiency in the chain: food waste can be reduced and chains shortened.’

An online environment offers opportunities for demand-driven innovation and marketing, because it is easier to gain insight into the behaviour and wishes of customers who order their products online.

According to Reinders an online environment also offers opportunities for demand-driven innovation and marketing, because it is easier to gain insight into the behaviour and wishes of customers who order their products online. ‘This will provide an incentive for new products or concepts to be developed based on customers’ prior ordering behaviour.’

The threats facing the online sale of produce lie mainly in the fact that the Dutch fresh produce sector is still highly traditional in its commercial development, says Reinders. ‘The Netherlands is not a front runner in digital technology. Also, the online delivery of a consistent and high quality still constitutes a challenge. Moreover, many consumers believe online purchases to be more expensive. This also forms a serious threat.’

New initiatives

Reinders expects the online market to keep growing unabatedly over the next few years. ‘The ING bank anticipates the online portion of sales achieved by Dutch supermarkets to reach 15 to 20 per cent by 2020. Developments follow one another at a rapid pace; new online initiatives are mushrooming. I think that growers and suppliers responding to these developments can be assured of becoming the preferred business partners of certain sales outlets and retailers. As far as this is concerned, the sector should not let these opportunities slip by!’

Text: Tuinbouwteksten.nl/Ank van Lier. Photo: LEI Wageningen UR.

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The consumption of fruit and vegetables is declining. The purchase of fresh vegetables by consumers dropped by three per cent and the purchase of fresh fruit by half a per cent in 2015. This trend has been growing for some time. According to Nicolette Quaedvlieg of GroentenFruit Huis there is still a world to conquer in this respect. ‘The online market offers a lot of new opportunities. Businesses are looking for new markets and models for their distribution.’

However, Quaedvlieg is also aware that the online sale of fresh produce is lagging behind the sale of other consumer and other goods. ‘People buying fresh products want to be able to see, touch and smell them first. Additionally, one type fruit or vegetable can easily be replaced by another; the internet offers more added value in the sale of consumer goods.’

Experience

Nevertheless, Quaedvlieg believes there to be ample opportunities with regard to the online sale of fresh produce. ‘There are outstanding opportunities if you can offer a unique product that is not available anywhere else, for example. Or if you can add something interesting to your products, like a recipe. Customer loyalty is also very important; people will come back once they know how tasty your products are. Consumer experience is a key factor in this.’

'Customer loyalty is also very important; people will come back once they know how tasty your products are. Consumer experience is a key factor in this.’

Quaedvlieg is also convinced that selling your products online enables you to enter into closer contact with your customers, which is a considerable advantage. ‘It’s easier to get feedback, from which you can gain a great deal of information. However, if you don’t make use of this it won’t be any help to you. This service is very important to consumers.’

Text: Tuinbouwteksten.nl/Ank van Lier. Photo: GroentenFruit Huis.

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Entrepreneurs have to jump on the online bandwagon, says Harrij Schmeitz, the director of Fresh Informationmanagement Center (FIC). The objective of FIC is to make the fresh produce sector stronger, more efficient and safer, and to successfully launch innovative developments on the market.

Schmeitz calls the online world an entirely new world. ‘I am comparing it to the emergence of the convenience market. This market was created by a group of pioneers who started chopping and packaging vegetables in a shed. In the course of time, this niche grew into a full-fledged market. The online market will be undergoing a similar development.’

‘I am comparing it to the emergence of the convenience market. This market was created by a group of pioneers who started chopping and packaging vegetables in a shed.'

According to Schmeitz, this is the reason why FIC launched the Fresh ONLINE Pack project. This project is exploring ways to promote the online market for fresh fruit and vegetables. The results are shared with the corporate world through ‘Innovation Circle Meetings’.

Quality and perception

According to Schmeitz, young people’s increasing tendency to opt for convenience offers plenty of opportunities for boosting the online sale of fresh consumer products. ‘However, this development could lead to negative results if we are unable to offer good quality products and adequately contribute to customer perception. Additionally, this niche is faced with a great deal of international competition. Acceptance with regard to the online sale of fresh consumer products will be faster in one country than in another. Just consider the Asian market in this respect!’

'The question is whether the enterprises currently operating in this sector will continue to survive at all. New parties are tapping into this market, also from outside.'

The Director of FIC believes that taking part in this development is not voluntary, but mandatory. ‘As a sector, we need to develop a strategy to cope with the changing market. The question is whether the enterprises currently operating in this sector will continue to survive at all. New parties are tapping into this market, also from outside. A new market is emerging, with new players and existing players that are undergoing a transformation. You have to hop on the bandwagon or you’ll miss the boat!’

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Text: Tuinbouwteksten.nl/Ank van Lier. Photo: FIC.

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JEM-id is based in Honselersdijk and develops websites and software. Ninety-five per cent of its clients are active in the fresh produce and ornamental plants sectors. Account manager Martijn van Andel has experienced the rapid growth in online sales achieved in the past few years by the ornamental plants sector, while according to him the the fresh produce sector lagged notably behind.

Van Andel explains that the diversity of the products in the ornamental plants sector is much greater than that of the fresh produce sector. Apart from this, consumers want to see fresh food products before buying them. ‘Even if you’re speaking about the same product, there are notable differences. No two moth orchids (Phalaenopsis) are alike. The number of branches will be different, as well as the quality, the packaging, and many other aspects. You really buy a specific article. This is why people are looking for ways to clearly and efficiently present the diversity of their products. Good photographs, taken at the growers’ place of business, are very important in this.’

This is different in the fresh produce sector, and the differences are less obvious. ‘If you order a five-kilogram box of red sweet peppers, diversity will be very limited. Everyone knows what you mean and nobody actually needs to look at the products before buying them. In this respect, ordering fresh produce is easier than ordering ornamental plants.’

FloraXchange

JEM-id developed the FloraXchange online communication platform especially for the potted plant sector. This platform provides support to growers in advertising their offering of potted plants. There are currently 1,059 growers affiliated with FloraXchange who present their products on the website. JEM-id makes this information available to more than 300 buyers, who in turn forward this information to their own customers. ‘It is quite revolutionary in the market. I venture to claim that this initiative has given the entire sector a boost. It provides in a demand; we have obtained a lot of positive response.’

According to the ICT specialist, trade companies really wanting to boost their sales have to make sure that their internal automation and logistics processes are in order. This means that a lot of their old systems will need to be replaced. Of course, not everyone is equally enthusiastic about this. ‘If you are a leading exporter of fresh produce or ornamental plants and you have to replace your internet systems, this will cost you a lot of money. This will, of course, have a huge impact, while the success ratio can be called quite exciting in terms of feasibility. There are many companies who keep putting this off. However, you have to embrace change rather than avoid it; at this point you have no other choice. You have to change with the times. This is the only way to survive in a world where the only constant is change.’

Purchase moment

According to Van Andel, there are still plenty of opportunities in the consumer market, both in the ornamental plants sector and the fresh produce sector. Logistics plays an important part in that respect. ‘Although there are special boxes available these days for shipping plants, shipping shoes is still a lot easier. Besides this, plants are impulse products. You don’t decide to buy a plant when you’re sitting on the couch in the evening with your laptop; you decide to buy one when you’re at the garden centre or the supermarket.’

However, the ICT specialist is surprised that the trend of buying groceries online is lagging so far behind. At the same time, he offers some plausible explanations for this. ‘Ordering a packet of macaroni, a jar of pasta sauce or a carton of yoghurt online is easy. But it’s different when you’re buying fruit or vegetables. If you regularly buy produce at a supermarket, you know that the freshest mushrooms aren’t the ones stalled out in front, and that the quality of green beans is variable from day to day. This is preventing a lot of consumers from buying these products online.’

One of the aspects that should be taken into consideration is customer perceptions at the moment of sale. ‘Buying a computer online is a lot more fun than buying one at a shop. Mediamarkt may have the lowest prices, but when you buy a computer there you will be helped by an eighteen-year-old in an ill-fitting jacket. On the other hand, when you buy a computer via Coolblue, you are not being pestered by anybody trying to sell you a more expensive product, you can consult hundreds of user reviews and your computer will be delivered to your home the next morning. It’s clear who will be winning this race.’

Text: Tuinbouwteksten.nl/Ank van Lier. Photo: JEM-id.

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The online market for fresh produce and ornamental plants is growing. However, while the ornamental plant sector is making giant steps forward in this respect, the food market is lagging distinctly behind, particularly with regard to fresh produce. How can this be explained, and what are some of the opportunities and threats facing the online sale of horticulture products? Four parties engaged in this field present their vision on the developments, each based on their own expertise.

The number of consumers preferring to make their purchases online is constantly growing. Not only do they buy their clothes and shoes online; they also buy their food on the internet. The percentage of fresh produce sold online, however, lags far behind that of other product groups.

This can in part be explained partly by the high supermarket density in the Netherlands and partly by a lack of consumer confidence in the quality of fresh fruit and vegetables offered online: they prefer to see - and even touch - these products before buying them. Additionally, they are reluctant to pay additional shipping and delivery costs. On top of that, many suppliers of fresh produce lack a successful business model, particularly due to the logistic complexity associated with online sales. There are still many challenges ahead!

Online groceries

Nevertheless, various people engaged in the online sale of food products believe this to be a highly promising market. A study conducted by LEI Wageningen University Research Centre at the beginning of 2015 showed that approximately 12% of all Dutch consumers order their groceries on the internet from time to time. Another study, conducted by Deloitte in 2015, revealed that 8% of all consumers have, at one time or another, made use of an online ordering service. This service is used once or twice a month and the average amount per online order is approximately 69 euros.

Groceries ordered by respondents (or that they would like to order) online are mainly products with a longer shelf life, dairy products and frozen food. There is, however, also a notable rise in the number of fresh products ordered online. The emergence of meal boxes, of which more and more are being offered by supermarkets and other retailers, plays an important role in this development. This relatively new concept is benefiting from the popularity of regional products, healthy nutrition, organic ingredients and several intensive marketing campaigns launched by leading international players.

Meal box increasing in popularity

The meal box is becoming increasingly popular among Dutch households: A recent survey by Multiscope showed that, as it stands today, 11% have tried out a meal box and one third of them will continue to order them. Two out of ten people in the Netherlands are interested in the concept, but have never ordered a meal box. These are generally households composed on one or two persons. What appeals to them in particular is the convenience, the variety in meals and the inspiration to try new recipes.

HelloFresh is the best-known meal box. Eight out of ten people in the Netherlands has heard of this brand. Users are most satisfied about the originality and good quality of HelloFresh box. However, the price and freedom of choice in the various varieties received a lower score. HelloFresh does not deliver its meal boxes on Monday, which is the preferred delivery date. Allerhande Box, however, delivers on Monday and is second to HelloFresh when it comes to name recognition (49%).

Text: Tuinbouwteksten.nl/Ank van Lier. Photo: Fresh Informationmanagement Center.

Would you like to know the key conclusions and read about appealing examples in e-commerce? Download the complete dossier New Retail (8 pages, pdf).

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