Glasshouse: Growing innovation

Some Dutch growers have developed new systems to maximise sales

The southern region of the Netherlands, stretching from Leiden to Haarlem, has traditionally been known as the country's bulb-growing district. But as consumer demand for less time-consuming products rises, growers are increasingly turning away from tradition.

Despite the region's historic industry, glasshouses have sprung up to house firms' new operations. Using a combination of growing in the field, in pots and under glass, a number of companies have beaten a path to new markets in their production and processing of perennials. This means using the very latest technology and, in some cases, investing in creating specialised machinery designed for purpose.

At perennial nursery Griffioen Wassenaar, director Bert Griffioen grows and trades around four million plants each year.

Customers order online through the firm's web shop and up to 100,000 plants need to be sent out from the nursery each day. With around 800 varieties of plants for customers to order from, this could be a logistical nightmare in terms of what each order will contain.

But Griffioen has developed a process for handling the orders with speed and accuracy - by building his own unique machine that meets the needs of the nursery.

"We get an enormous mix of different plants coming in that have to be processed and we simply didn't have the skilled workers to know which plants were which," Griffioen explains. "So two years ago we decided to mechanise the entire process and now we can produce the whole order automatically."

Griffioen approached a team of engineers with his idea for a machine that could sort the orders. "The system was so labour intensive so I got some people together and said, 'I have a dream'," he says. "Two months later they came back to me and said it could be done. The machine was made especially for us and there is only one in the whole of the Netherlands."

Up to 20 separate orders can be loaded into the machine's computer at any time and, as the plants are fed onto a conveyor belt, the computer automatically matches the orders with barcodes on the plant labels. Griffioen explains: "It is the same way luggage is sorted at an airport, or how the post office works."

Although it was a large investment, Griffioen believes it was worth the effort. "It makes a difference to our order processing and this year we are making a profit again for the first time following the investment in the machine," he adds.

Similarly, at Molter BV, based in Noordwijkerhout, brothers Pascal and Remy Lubbe have taken a bullish approach to ensuring their firm's success.

Although the Municipality of Noordwijkerhout brands itself as being "In the Heart of the Tulip Fields", the brothers have bucked convention to grow the business and cash in on the US market.

As well as running a lily breeding programme, the firm has a strong focus on perennial exports. By exporting directly to US customers, Molter cuts out the middleman, but has had to develop a robust procedure to ensure its plants meet the stringent export standards.

Remy Lubbe says: "We had a sorting machine built especially for us to help with sorting the one million plants we produce each year. We invented the machine and have three here at the nursery, but there is also another one in Holland and one in the US."

The Pom-Tel Electronic-built machine works by taking a picture of each of the plants coming through on a conveyor belt. It then uses that picture to work out the size of the plant and grade it accordingly. Root washing is then necessary through the firm's washing machine, before water is filtered and recycled.

"Our philosophy is to do everything in-house," explains Remy Lubbe, whose customers include UK-based Thompson & Morgan.

Molter also uses a GPS system on its field-planting machine to assist in speeding up its operations, as well as using a weeding machine every two days.

"The Government has taken away so many herbicides that we can't stay on top of the weeds otherwise," adds Remy Lubbe.

According to Gebr Alkemade nursery owner Wil Alkemade, it is essential for firms working in the area to maximise their returns as much as possible in their existing glasshouse space because of planning control on new development.

"It is not easy to get permission to build a new glasshouse because the Government wants this area to remain a bulb-growing region," he says.

"Each year we change the varieties we stock to keep up with changing demand."

The nursery's main business is concentrated on growing on perennial cuttings, with lavender being one of its major products this year.

"Lavender is a very big item for us; it's incredible how much the demand has increased," explains former bookkeeper Wil Alkemade, who went into business with his brother Theo in 1989.

When the company launched, it was producing 50,000 plants from cuttings each year, but that has now sky-rocketed to 13 million. It operates from four glasshouses totalling 20,000sq m (2ha) of space.

"With lavender, people seem to keep it for one season then throw it away," Wil Alkemade adds. "We are seeing that trend more and more where people are using perennials as annuals."

As demand has grown, so has the need for greater efficiency. This year, the Alkemade brothers invested in a tray-filling machine to help with operations.

"It is completely new and we were the first company to get it," reveals Wil Alkemade. "We have had it since the spring after seeing it at IPM Essen in January.

"There are only three or four companies in Holland that have it now."

With the euro riding so high, it is crucial for these Dutch firms to make themselves as competitive as possible. That means staying one step ahead all the time.

Grower-led innovation and investment in automation could be the silver bullet that makes the traditional bulb fields profitable in other ways.

BREAKTHROUGH IN MARKETING

The squat green frog logo that aquatic plant grower De Plomp uses as its branding is indicative of its approach to marketing - memorable and different. Since setting up the firm with his wife in 1981, John Hoogendoorn's thinking underwent a radical change 10 years ago.

"We realised the consumer was the most important part of the business," explains Hoogendoorn. "We could produce as many plants as we liked but if the consumer didn't like them or wouldn't pay the price for them, that was a problem.

"As growers, traditionally we cannot do anything about price or how the market is going. The only thing you can do is make your product unique and interesting for the consumer.

"Research has shown you need to deliver your message in seven seconds."

Hoogendoorn wanted to produce a plant that created a "retail concept" for garden centres and DIY stores, but found marketing companies in the Netherlands were unable to meet his demands.

Instead of settling for less, he set up his own in-house photography studio and label-making process. "It means we can control the message we give to the consumer and that is the success of our company," he explains. "The only thing we don't do is print the labels ourselves."

The firm produces aquatic plants in its 2.5ha of glasshouses, which are then packaged in one of 11 unique moulded plastic pots.

It has recently expanded into producing aquarium plants in order to extend the selling season.

"The packaging has been a big investment for us and it was a risk when we started, but luckily it has turned out well," adds Hoogendoorn. "We've also created displays specifically for our products."


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