Seeds of Success
Saturday 14 July – Northern tour
Yields in the Netherlands are one of the highest in the world and knowledge and seeds are exported worldwide. Growers and breeders have always worked closely together. We visited an area where both the history and the future are visible. Lunch was at a historical and unique sail-through vegetable auction. We got a sense of the future at breeder Bejo Zaden. And of course we visited farmers who grow seed potatoes and broccoli.
Appelman Vegetables in Stompetoren is specialized in growing broccoli and red and white cabbage for the trade and retail channel. The Appelman family grows 170 ha of broccoli and 60 ha of red and white cabbage, partly on owned land and partly on rented land in the direct surrounding. This results in around 1,800 ton of broccoli and 5,000 ton of cabbage, which is all cleaned and packed on the farm and partly stored in cold houses to be able to deliver year-round.
The history of the family business goes back to 1984, when Margo van der Vliet and Peter Appelman started. In 2016, their son Dave joined the family business. Although no longer man and wife, Margo and Peter are still working together on a daily basis. The company employs eight people year round, and in peak periods the amount of workers can be up to 20. Having a good crew is crucial.
Appelman delivers to a wide range of traders and supermarket chains and tries to be a preferred supplier. Peter does most of his own trade directly, which takes a lot of his time and attention. “It is a tough business,” he said. “Margins are small and the competition is strong.”
On the production side, Appelman invests a lot in the soil, which consists of heavy clay. He uses compost on a regular basis and grows cover crops where possible. “This always comes back to you,” he said. “You can’t grow a good product on bad soil.” He is careful with selecting the land he rents. “Fields can really be abused when it is rented out all the time. I like to come back on dairy farms where the soil is mostly used for grass.”
Introduction to the Dutch plant-breeding sector
After one century of the development of plant breeding businesses, the Netherlands has become the major exporter in the world of starting materials of plants, representing an increasing export value of € 2.5 billion. Dutch breeders are global market leaders in plant reproduction material (seeds, cuttings, plantlets for ornamentals, potatoes, flower bulbs, grasses, and vegetable seeds). This position is based on craftsmanship, entrepreneurialism and innovation, and as a result the Dutch breeding industry is cited as one of the most innovative in the world. Particularly in the vegetable breeding sector, companies with their basis and main premises in the Netherlands account for about one third of the worlds’ vegetable seed exports and one eighth of the world vegetable seed imports. This makes the Netherlands both the largest vegetable seed exporting as well as importing country. Over the past three decades, the vegetable breeding industry has become more and more consolidated due to many mergers and acquisitions. As a result the top ten vegetable breeding companies now account for over 85% of the vegetable seed market in the world, and most of these top ten companies originated in or have important R&D facilities in the Netherlands. The industry is playing important roles in the Dutch public domains related to food, agriculture, trade and the environment, as its innovations in this first phase of food production and food processing finally affect the whole supply chain. (source: NJAS)
While fewer and fewer players dominate the agricultural seed market, Bejo is still a family-owned company. Bejo is the world market leader in onion, carrot and red beet seeds, and a strong player in all kinds of vegetables such as celeriac, leeks, cabbage, celery, Brussels sprouts, radicchio, asparagus and more.
In global breeding programs, the needs of all parties in the food chain are taken into account, from growers to consumers. Resistance to disease, foliage quality, production, uniformity, shape, colour, smoothness and shelf life are all examples of properties used by Bejo’s breeders during the stringent selection process. On top of that, breeders also pay attention to the post processing yield, internal colour, flavour and nutritional contents.
On the growing side there’s a rising demand for robustness, as an important part of integrated pest management. Bejo’s breeders try to combine high yields with characteristics that are helpful in sustainable growing systems, like disease resistance and strong roots. Organic is a growing market for Bejo.
Bejo believes and supports the idea that several new breeding techniques could be considered as non-GMO. Together, with existing breeding techniques, they could provide sufficient possibilities to develop new vegetable varieties to meet the market’s needs. For this reason, Bejo does not explore any breeding technique, in the EU or elsewhere in the world, that result in commercial GMO varieties. All varieties in the assortment are obtained through non-GMO plant-breeding methods in accordance with worldwide GMO regulation.
Bejo is active in more than 30 countries and employs 1,700 people.
We had lunch at the BroekerVeiling museum, where you can experience the story of Dutch horticulture and trade at the oldest sail-through auction in the world. Since 1887, boats full of cabbages, onions and other products have floated through the auction area. The Dutch auction system was actually invented here. We joined a live auction. We had to be careful: we might leave with 1,000 kg of potatoes!
Johan Barendregt and his family are farming 165 ha of arable land in Schermerhorn. They own 100 ha, and the rest is leased land, both short and long term. The main crop on the farm is seed potatoes (56 ha). Other crops include ware potatoes (15 ha), sugar beets (30 ha), wheat (35 ha), celeriac (15ha) and 4 ha of dry peas (an old regional variety). Besides that, Barendregt Agro is doing contract work for other farmers, most of which is harvesting grain, potatoes and sugar beet.
The farm is situated in a historical polder, which is listed as a Unesco World Heritage site (Beemster Schermer). The land was reclaimed from an inland sea more than 400 years ago, between 1607 and 1612, using 43 windmills. The lake changed into a unique landscape that lies 3.5 meters below sea level and was divided into a tight geometric pattern of squares and quadrants. It has since then been used mainly for agriculture. The old landscape, including some of the the old windmills, are still visible directly from the farm. And old farmhouse is an original building from the 17th century. Building permits are sometimes not easy and come with strict rules.
The history of the family farm dates back to the year 1920 when Janus Barendregt started a mixed farm with dairy and arable crops. After WWII, Janus’ son Arie took over the farm, stopped milking cows and started a contracting business in harvesting grain, beets and potatoes. This decision turned out well. Labour was getting more and more expensive and there was a big demand for mechanization. Arie Berendregt in 1970 became dyke-reeve (chair of the water board). Around the same time Arie’s son, Aad, joined the business, and was later joined by his brother Bert. Because of the rising competition in contract work, the brothers decided to put more time and effort in the development of their own farm again. In 2013 Aad’s son Johan joined the family business. He completely took over the farm in 2016.
In the past decades, the Barendregt family continued to invest in arable farming. In 1992 and 2000, new storage and handling facilities were built, mainly for seed potatoes. The current capacity for storing potatoes is now 4,000 ton. Besides that, 1,000 tons of celeriac can be stored on site. The seed potatoes are grown mainly as class E (meaning they are multiplied five generations in total, of which two times on the farm). During the winter, the potatoes are graded and sorted, and then leave the farm for destinations in Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa.
The family business has 4.5 full-time workers, including the family members. During harvest, a group of self-employed individuals is brought in to get all the work done.
Next year, 1,500 solar panels will be installed on the roof of one of the barns.
Facts & figures about Dutch arable farming
Where is the arable cropland?
(The figure is showing arable land as a percentage of total farm land)
Dutch arable sector in a nutshell
- The Netherlands has 12,000 arable farmers (definition: more than 2/3 of the turnover comes from arable farming), of which 9,000 are pure arable,
- A quarter of the agricultural land in the Netherlands is in use as arable land: about 500,000 ha. The average size of an arable farm is 42 ha,
- 8% of the arable farms is bigger than 100 ha. They account for 37% of the acreage,
- More than 30% of the arable land is used for potatoes,
- The average price of farm land in the Netherlands is 56,500 euro per hectare. (In Flevoland, where the two farms of this tour are located, prices are 80,000 up to 120,000 euro per ha),
- The Dutch farming sector exports 2/3 of its production,
- The Netherlands is the biggest exporter of seed potatoes, onions and flower bulbs in the world.
Inspection of seed potatoes
The potato is an important crop in arable farming in the Netherlands. Of a total acreage of about 150,000 ha, each year between around 40,000 hectares are grown as seed potatoes.
Some 1,500 qualified seed potato growers produce more than 1.5 million tonnes of seed annually. Farm holdings vary in seed potato acreage, from less than one hectare to more than 100 ha. Most seed potato farmers are members of a trade company. These are either cooperatives or private enterprises. Seed potato growers are highly qualified specialists. They benefit from extensive scientific research, the Agricultural Advisory Service and the experience of seed companies. Skill is necessary, taking into account that more than 300 varieties are grown. Seed potato production is partly (about 10%) based on the system of clonal selection and mainly on tissue culture material (about 90%).
Seed potatoes are divided into three categories, with subdivisions into classes: • pre-basic seed: originating from mini tubers and clonal selection, class PB • basic seed: classes S, SE and E • certified seed: classes A and B.
Every year seed crops are automatically downgraded one class. In this way regular use of healthy seed is stimulated. Depending on inspection results, further downgrading or rejection may occur. Class PB and S seed stocks find their way to other seed potato growers, who propagate this high class material for another two or three years. Schematically the classification system is as follows:
The quality of the seed potatoes (and agricultural seeds) is closely monitored by the NAK (Netherlands General Inspection Service for Agricultural Seeds and Seed Potatoes), founded in 1932. The NAK operates under the direction and supervision of the Ministry of Economic Affairs. However, the NAK is not a governmental (public) organisation, but an independent foundation. The board is composed of representatives of all organisations, active in the field of seed crops and seed potatoes: breeders, growers, merchants and users.