"The Netherlands is the market leader in the export of onions. Hazera plays a role in this success. At the moment we are ranked third in the export of onions worldwide. We have enthusiastic growers. This did not happen by chance. We have worked very hard to achieve this."
Wim van der Heijden, Global Product Manager for onions at Hazera
When Wim van der Heijden, Global Product Manager for onions at Hazera, starts talking about his job, he will want to tell you everything. "We experience more than ten percent growth in our company annually. That says a lot about our achievements. We are also developing new varieties for the organic market and the results in that area are very promising."
When you buy onions in a shop you do not think about how the goods were produced. Customers expect the golden-yellow or red bulbs to look good, have a long shelf-life and - most importantly- to taste good. But the process of going from a seed to finely chopped onions in a frying pan is lengthy and involves a lot of modern technology. Each new variety takes approximately twenty years to develop, says Wim van der Heijden. So it is crucial for Hazera that they will actually sell the products they have worked on intensively for many years.
Breeders are key to the development of good onion varieties. Wim van der Heijden is also cut from the same cloth, so he knows what he is talking about. "The breeders look for the best traits in the trial plots, such as a maximum yield and high quality. Subsequently, these bulbs are selected to create new varieties. That is not all though. The ability to harvest and transport the bulbs easily is also of crucial importance."
Furthermore, the onions also need to be resilient when the production field experiences warmth, cold, moisture, drought and disease. In short: the growers want healthy, fast growing onions with a high yield. That involves years of research. Finally, he adds, the shelf-life comes into play. As many onions are stored for long periods of time or are transported across the world before they are bought by consumers. The onions also need to demonstrate their resilience during transportation. "Because the customer does not want to buy a bruised or peeling product in the shop. All these aspects have to be just right."
"It has been a long road to achieve this position on the global market. We succeeded though", said Van der Heijden, who likes to provide a little insight into how this came about. "In the nineties, the bulb's quality was our number one priority. You must be thinking: that is logical and that is the case. However, growers actually consider productivity to be more important, as they are paid per kilo of product."
"This does not make quality less important, though implicit. So, we were strongly committed to maintaining the same high quality, though with a higher yield. And we succeeded. Added to that, our team of product managers regularly keeps its ears open and listens to the farmers. We keep on developing based on the feedback we receive from the field."
"We also consult the so-called packing stations, that buy the onions in bulk. What is involved in the automated weighing, packaging and transportation of the onions? Which specific demands do these companies have?" According to Wim van der Heijden, the packing stations are now convinced of the quality of the Hazera-varieties.
"These companies buy the onions from the growers. The following applies to them: the less loss during packaging and transportation, the larger the profit."
"They do not want onions that are not firm enough, too damp or lose their protective outer skin. Furthermore, no damage may occur to the onions during the long journey to Asia, Africa or the Americas. If the onions start to look unattractive or become moldy, it directly affects their income. Fortunately our onions achieve the highest score on average. Due to their excellent quality, the loss of our onions is significantly lower than those of our competitors. And that news spreads like wildfire."
A leap forwards
"There are many different onion varieties. Hazera's newest variety is called Fasto. This variety can be sown early in the season for very early harvesting. It is also suitable for storage over a longer period of time. This used to be different, but thanks to new breeding techniques we have made a big leap forwards."
Again, the customers are wildly enthusiastic, according to Wim van der Heijden. "One of the main advantages of the increased storage life is that growers do not have to immediately sell the onions after harvesting them. They can wait for the market situation to improve and obtain a better price."
A compelling example of progress is the battle against downy mildew. Many years ago, scientists at Wageningen University and Research Centre searched for resistance to this disease in more than eight hundred Allium species growing in the wild. Finally, they found this in a very small plant in Pakistan. This was the Allium roylei.
Hazera has acquired the characteristics and applied for a patent for the onion (Allium cepa) which is bred from this. Wim van der Heijden: "The good thing about this is that the organic farmer greatly benefits from this. Normally, organic farmers can do very little to fight this disease, because he/she cannot use most types of pesticides. Now the resistance is already present in the plant. We have also managed to increase the yield of this variety."
"An organic farmer used to be able to harvest 15 to 20 tons of onions from an acre of land, now he/she can harvest no less than 40 to 45 tons. Therefore, the organic farmer comes close to the yield of the traditional grower, who harvests approximately 58 tons per hectare of land. And the traditional grower also sprays pesticides over the crops multiple times. So the resistance against downy mildew is a favourable development."
He continues: "Disease resistance is high on our list of priorities. And there are sufficient challenges in this area. Because let's face it, we cannot continue to rampantly use pesticides ..." The new varieties of onions that have this resistance are Santero and Sanjato. Both can be sown and harvested early. In the past seven years, the organic area in The Netherlands has increased from 400 hectares to almost 1,000 hectares.
In addition to seeds, which was the topic up until now, Hazera also focuses on onion sets. This means that this biennial should be sown very thickly in April/May. "More than 100 kilos of seed is sown on one hectare of land." If you sow the seed so thickly, you will be able to harvest a lot of small onions which can then be re-planted," he said.
These seeds which are used to produce onion sets are sold by Hazera and the biennial bulbs are produced by specialised companies. The new variety is called Contado and it possesses the necessary strong characteristics, resulting in less loss than in the past. The success of all these new varieties can be shared in many places worldwide, says Wim van der Heijden.
His team consists of special managers for Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. They also listen to specific wishes, as the local circumstances of the areas in which the breeders work must be taken into account. "This system works well. We therefore face the future with confidence."
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