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"We will decide at the beginning of 2018 if this experiment will be international or regional"

Dutch royal couple introduced to City Farming in the "Polder" at Fresh-Care Convenience

Fresh-Care Convenience have only been in their new premises at De Poort Industrial Area in Dronten for a month. This did not stop King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima from having a look at the high care vegetable processing plant on Thursday, 29 June, whilst on a business trip to Flevoland. ""We are very proud of this", says director, Rien Panneman. The royal couple listened intently to the explanation about the vertical garden - climate rooms which have nine layers of lettuce being cultivated under LED lighting.

The royal couple were met at Fresh-Care by Dronten Mayor, Aat de Jonge

Rien tells how Fresh-Care Convenience was established in Dronten in 1997 and has been part of the Staay Food Group since 2001. The company now has 400 employees. The new plant is 27 000 m2 (24 000 m2 of cooled produce area, 3 000 m2 of office space and 1 000 m2 of vertical farm) and is triple the size of the previous location. "Sales are mostly aimed at the German market. We deliver 140 DC's to Germany on a daily basis. Fresh-Care Convenience's turnover is rising rapidly, in part thanks to the growing trend towards healthy eating and the growth of this sector in Germany."

Brothers, Dammis and Ad van der Staaij

Fresh-Care Convenience specialises in the processing of fresh fruit, vegetables and natural ingredients into ready-to-use products such as salads, vegetable soups and pizzas. The largest part of the new plant comprises high and low care areas. The hall where vegetables are cut and packaged in, is completely cooled and divided into various high care areas. The whole plant makes use of a cooling system that recycles CO2 back through the system, making it more environmentally friendly.

Vertical farm
The visitors then had a look at the vertical farm area, which will be installed in August. "The largest in Europe, but it is still an experimental set-up", Panneman explained to the King and Queen. "But if it delivers as we expect it to, we will certainly roll this farming technique out regionally and internationally. We have a capacity of 6 000 - 7 000 kg per week, but have a weekly demand is for 120 000 kg. We will decide at the beginning of 2018 if we are going to expand this cultivation technique. Other regional farmers can then join."

Certhon, main contractor and designer of the technical and projected installations of the project, also got the opportunity to explain their role to the royal couple. John van der Sande (Head of R&D) and Damion Schwarzkachel (Consulting Engineer) addressed the King and Queen in the Certhon City Farm. The couple were well prepared, according to John, and showed a lot of enthusiasm. Maxima wanted to know how the plants are watered during vertical farming and was impressed when Damion and John explained that no water gets wasted during the cultivation.

Lettuce with coconut plugs are the main crop being grown with water and under LED lighting. "At the moment we get a portion of our lettuce from southern Europe. The disadvantages of this is that the climate is whimsical and transport distances are long. If the lettuce were to come straight from the vertical farm, it will be fresher, it will not have been sprayed with pesticides and will have a consistent look and quality", The director said. "In addition, this type of cultivation is sustainable, as we know we can reduce water usage tenfold. We plan to do much better. If we plant on day 1, we can harvest on day 30. The first crops, lollo bionda, lollo rosso, rocket and frisee from these climate rooms will therefore be on the market this year already."

To get this project off the ground, a co-operative body was established. Philips Lighting, Rijk Zwaan, Certhon, various centres of excellence and high schools, including Aeres in Dronten, are part of this consortium. These knowledge partners were also all present to inform Maxima en Willem-Alexander of their specialities within the consortium.

Dammis van der Staaij at the vertical farming test setup

There is a collaboration to further develop vertical farming so it can be done on a large scale internationally. "We are totally independent from the climate and can, therefore, farm locally-for-locally from Dubai to Moscow", concludes Rien.

He emphasises that the cost of this type of cultivation is high - more than EUR 8 million was invested in this project - and that vertical farming will certainly not replace existing farming methods. It will be applied selectively. "The costs are very high at the moment. We have an advantage since we use the lettuce in salads. We use a limited amount, which means we can add value. This would not be possible if we did have a guaranteed market. The supermarket chains, Aldi Netherlands and Aldi Germany are our most important partners in this project."

Polish migrant workers
The King and Queen were also taken on a tour through the plant. They spoke to, among others, a group of Polish migrant workers, who form the majority of the workforce. In recent years, a number of these temporary workers have gained permanent positions at the company and have moved their families to the Netherlands. Staay Food Group works with an employment agency to ensure that these workers are paid according to industry standards. In addition, the company is committed to helping these employees organise housing, transport and get support with regard to various personal matters. Together with the Dronten Municipality, efforts are being made to fill jobs with local job seekers.

Marco Kleijn's reaction at the Drontenaar:

Publication date: 7/5/2017


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