Vincent Turkelboom:

“Forgotten and unused cultivations are emergency exit for many”

Western consumers are not often hungry anymore, so they can focus on flavour and experience, according to Belgian fruit expert and former Horticulture lecturer Vincent Turkelboom. The free market system, a focus on price, efficiency and export are also threatening to hollow out the fruit sector. Fortunately there are also plenty of initiatives, sometimes born out of necessity, that are turning against this trend. Because of creativity and innovation, forgotten cultivations can be brought back to life or new cultivations can be started. Vincent gives an overview of the problems and solutions.

Import and export
Vincent: “Most fruit companies have grown (considerably), and scaling-up continues to happen. The number of companies is decreasing, not all companies can or want to join in. Large, mid-sized and small companies can coexist without problems. The cultivations and company visions, however, vary. Some growers think food kilometres, locals for locals and a connection to the consumers is important, and rightly so. Traceability is and will remain a tricky problem. In Europe it’s quite difficult. Outside of Europe, inspections are too weak and still not watertight. Moreover, increasing food imports from outside of Europe makes us food dependent, and brings a larger chance of bringing in new pests and diseases with it. There are also problems the other way around. Distant food export markets are not sustainable, nor stable. The Russia crisis was a cold shower for many.”

Distributive trade, sales channels and consumers could also look at things differently, according to Vincent. “The fruit grower desires a liveable income. No one benefits from agriculture bleeding out, as in France. We can live without televised sports for two weeks, but not without food. Agriculture ensures we have food three times per day. We don’t think about that often enough. Chauvinism that only exists in the field of sports but not for our Dutch and Belgian farmers worries me. Many people enjoy the rural areas, but they forget farmers take care of these.” Vincent also mentions the price war between supermarket. “That is killing our farmers.”

Differentiation in varieties is important in the long term. Vincent: “There’s so much more than Elstar and Conference… differentiation is important for growers and for mother nature, because she isn’t fond of monocultures. Just look at bananas, which are now experiencing many problems. Conference is also struggling with gradually increasing problems, such as sensitivity to scabs.”

Solutions to the above-mentioned problems are on hand, after a long search. Forgotten and unused cultivations can be ‘an emergency exit for many.’ A number of companies and developments are dedicated to innovation. They are looking for new cultivations, reconquering the local market by offering regional products, and broadening by looking for new applications, Vincent says.

Vincent can be enthusiastic about the many, often small, alternatives he comes across. He sees the potential of products. The flavour is often surprising as well. But can such a product be scaled up and will it be picked up by the market? Vincent: “I have so much admiration for small cultivations. They require a lot of energy, creativity and brainwork. Quite a bit of premiums often have to be paid for them. They work with a small sales market, auctions and chain stores only jump in when a profit can be made.”

Success stories
Fortunately, there are success stories as well. “The most important example is naturally the tomato. Twenty years ago the cultivation mostly focused on growing large fruits, but when consumers started complaining about water bombs, many variations arrived on the market. Nowadays there’s so much choice in supermarkets. This trend can now be seen with carrots, although Peter Bauwens from De Nieuwe Tuin has been paying attention to that for twenty years. The strawberry supply is also becoming more diverse. Sea aster, common glasswort and seaweed are also nice examples. These vegetables have always been important local products in the Dutch province of Zeeland, but now they are available throughout the Netherlands.” As examples of ‘forgotten or unused’ cultivations that have much potential, Vincent mentions the nut and cooking pear cultivations.

Nut cultivation
According to researchers from Wageningen Plant Research, the cultivation of nuts has much potential in the Netherlands. The quality of nuts elsewhere is declining and climatological circumstances in the Netherlands are getting better. Another plus is that there’s a growing market for nuts, especially since the Dutch Nutrition Centre added nuts to the food pyramid.

Application options
Nuts have versatile application options. It can be eaten or processed into oil, liqueur (Nocino), wine, pastas, muesli and more. The researchers didn’t just look at the nut, they found a market for more parts: tea from the partitions, the shell as polishing material or ground cover, and the shell can also be used as colour. The tree itself can also be harvested: the leaves are usable as chemical components, pesticides or fish food, and the wood can be used as construction material. 

It is well-known that the walnut (Juglans regia) has been growing in the Netherlands since Roman times. The walnut thrives on sandy or permeable clay soil. The hazel (Corylus avellana) is a native shrub and old culture plant, but a trade cultivation of hazelnuts has never really started in the Netherlands. The surface of hazelnut cultivation is therefore limited. That could also be because you can buy good-quality nuts cheaper in other countries. The Dutch area for nuts is very limited. According to figures from the Dutch Central Agency for Statistics, nuts were grown on 61 hectares in 2015. Of that, about 70 per cent was walnut and 30 per cent was hazelnut. Nuts are mostly grown in China and the US. In Europe, countries such as Italy, France and Turkey grow nuts, both walnuts and hazelnuts.

The feasibility study shows that growing walnuts and hazelnuts is possible with a reasonable balance in the Netherlands. Vincent: “Walnuts are very sensitive for spring night frost, because they sprout early. However, some varieties sprout very late, such as Lara, Fernette and Nr 26. Hazelnuts blossom very early, but the flower can withstand the frost quite well. This is exceptional in fruit cultivation. For the cultivation of nuts, gaining knowledge is difficult but interesting. Mutual contacts are essential in that.”

Demand for nuts is growing, and recent political developments in Turkey and the uncertainty this causes on the markets can be positive for the local cultivation of hazelnuts. For calculations, students — who carried out part of the research — assumed the company used had 20 hectares. No such company exists in the Netherlands. The authors of the report think it would be a good opportunity to start such a company in the Netherlands. Not just the cultivation should be given attention in that, but also processing, consumption and education.

Cooking pears
Cooking pears are hardly commercially grown anymore in the Netherlands. In 2015, it concerned just 270 hectares, that’s even less than one per cent of the surface of fruit of 19,770 hectares in that same year, of which 9,234 hectares were pear trees. For cooking pears, Gieser Wildeman has the largest turnover, followed at quite a distance by Saint Rémy. In 2015, the number of pear varieties was eleven, including the cooking pear varieties mentioned earlier. For comparison: Conference pears are the main product in the fruit area and amount to 6,974 hectares — that is 75 per cent — in 2015.

Rescue plan
Cooking pears are important for the pollination of Conference, which is the reason these varieties are still being planted. Yet in 20 years, the cooking pear area has decreased by half: from 549 hectares to 270 hectares. Tammo Katuin from the Noordelijke Pomelo Vereniging thought this was worrisome, and took the initiative to save the cooking pears. With other cooking pear saviours he came up with a rescue plan. The international cooking pear project subsequently had a flying start in Landshut, Germany, where Tammo held a lecture about the topic. Three working groups (theory, fieldwork and uses) are currently working on drawing up the cooking pear project further, and other initiatives have also been developed, such as the sales of old fruit varieties via internet.

For cooking pears the options for using them are also much broader than just eating the pears stewed. The working group uses sees more opportunities for using the fruit in dishes by drying and crushing them. They can then be made into coffee, but also into soup, eau de toilette or eau de vie. And people also pay good money for the wood for furniture. (general) (cultivation of nuts) (cooking pears)

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