Regrettably, biological crop protection is still one of the best-kept secrets of the Dutch horticulture; and more could be done in terms of marketing of the sector. This is the view of Jan Prins, the director and owner of trading company Zijtwende International. His company is making efforts to bring about change in this area. ‘We have lots of capabilities, but hardly publicize these.’
In 2004, Jan Prins made a decision that he has not regretted since: he went independent. Until that point, he had been a seller at the trading company Van Dijk Delft and also managed a business unit of The Greenery.
He joined forces with John Harting from Harting Holland to establish Zijtwende International. The pair have since enjoyed great success, with the company having retained its position amongst the top ten vegetable exporters for some years.
The company serves retail chains in the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, and the UK, with Germany as its core market. Its product portfolio focuses on large greenhouse crops such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and aubergines. These four crops account for more than 80% of turnover.
The driving factors behind the company's success are its no-nonsense approach, comprehensive experience, and extensive network. Prins adds: ‘Another factor is that we have a wide orientation on the purchasing side. This means we know exactly where to find products that customers ask for.’
A shorter chain
Zijtwende International has grown during a period that has witnessed many rapid changes in the greenhouse horticulture sector. Prins names three important factors. ‘The first is the scale increase. This development is easy to illustrate. Whereas previously you needed five growers to fill one lorry, it's now often the opposite: five lorries from one grower.’
The chain has also become shorter, with many growers and growers’ associations now taking care of packaging themselves. Alongside eliminating a link in the chain, this also generates time savings. ‘You can supply a fresher product earlier, more quickly, and entirely according to your customers' specifications.’
Last but not least, you also need to factor in that supermarkets looking for maximum food security are imposing increasingly stringent requirements on residue, in some cases going above and beyond regulations set by their national governments.
The Netherlands has to compete in various areas on the international market, such as the ability to ensure right volumes, customized products, and food security, not to mention to offer a varied range of products and a flawless service. Biological crop protection must be a part of this.
More and more questions
Zijtwende International always takes the time to show new customers how Dutch growers work. Supermarkets wants to know more and more about the product, he explains. ‘This has been the case for biological crop protection for a long time. However, supermarkets are now looking at social aspects. They're asking questions like: is the grower also a good employer? What energy sources do they use? Is the grower attempting to use more renewables? We are more than happy to give our customers a tour of the various farms, so that they can get a good overall impression of the business and ask questions.’
However, Jan Prins thinks that even more should be done with biological protection and other areas. ‘Dutch growers are miles ahead in terms of biological crop protection,’ says Jan Prins. ‘The overwhelming majority of fruiting vegetable crops benefit from biological protection. This crucial protection is a factor in our growers’ success. Given the critical nature of European markets, growers must maximize their use of biological crop protection. At the same time, however, many consumers have little knowledge of what this protection entails.’
Even retailers are no experts; they come to Jan Prins with a whole range of questions. For instance, one purchaser asked whether the tomatoes in the tall Dutch greenhouses were picked using ladders. Some also assume that sprouts are grown in greenhouses. ‘If a purchaser of all people doesn't know anything about the activities in our greenhouses and about our production methods, how can we expect consumers to know?’ ‘We have lots of capabilities, but hardly publicize these. Things really need to change.’