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Mart Valstar, Best Fresh Group:
“Future of Dutch horticulture, cheap energy”
Mart Valstar from Best Fresh group
The extension of the Valstar in Westerlee took flight in 1996 after the takeover of PeDe, in which the sights were first set on the German market, and was extended in 1998 with the specialisation in strawberries and other soft fruit after the takeover of FruitWorld. Five years later Valstar made the decision of founding the Best Fresh Group, through the company transformed from one large central organisation to many subsidiaries. "The Best Fresh Group now consists of knowing the four pillars: trade, cultivation, logistics and finance. We have chosen pure product specialists within a company. In our opinion a single entity, above a certain company size, loses the face and soul of the company. This is why we believe it is important that a company like FruitWorld profiles itself as a soft fruit specialist, instead of being an add-on of Valstar in Poeldijk."
"The advantage of this is that you create real product specialists. Someone who understands oranges doesn't understand tomatoes and vice versa. This is why I don't believe much in synergy advantages if they are all around one table. Under one roof works better. Our supermarket clients also have more and more product specialists. It is up to our customers themselves to decide whether they want to speak to a product specialist or to one set account manager with one of the companies. In the latter case this person must make sure they know enough about the other companies and their products for that customers. I don't think there's one ideal solution. Even our formula doesn't always work, some companies marginalise too much."
Smaller role in bulk
in recent years the Best Fresh Group has made the strategic choice to focus on niche products with its subsidiaries. "If you look at the main products per segment, such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers in greenhouse vegetables, you don't need to expect huge investments from us. We trade them and customers and suppliers can come to us for them," says Mart. "I foresee that the growers will find each other more over the next few years, with or without CMO money, and will start to directly serve the retailers, as is the norm in other countries. This is what we are focussing on. We expect the "middle man" in the high season to play a less important role in these products."
Greenhouse in Koekoekspolder (Netherlands)
The future of Dutch horticulture
Although the local production in other areas have been increasing rapidly in recent years, Mart is convinced that the Dutch horticulture will continue to play an important role. "We have the advantage of our greenhouse horticulture cluster here and our location is close to the Rotterdam ports and Central Europe. I'm not saying that the Dutch area will increase, because I don't expect much change in it for the next decade, but I do think that new varieties and growing techniques will result in higher productions per hectare. We will have to find a solution to the energy problem, however. Cheap energy is an advantage. Shale gas has become more expensive than normal gas, but geothermic seem to be the future."
Mart doesn't see the increasing foreign cultivation as a huge threat. "For example, look at the increasing greenhouse cultivation in Germany. The fact that they are building now, is an appreciation for the Dutch way of cultivating, which was maligned twenty years ago. The Dutch tomato is valued more highly than ever. Of course the German retailer will prefer a German product, but they will never be able to grow as efficiently as we do here. In the end the Germans build the best cars and we produce the best tomatoes. We are also better able to serve München from the Westland thanks to our intricate logistics, than from, for instance, Hamburg. This is why I'm convinced that we will remain an important centre for horticulture."
"New local productions will continue to exist, but there have been the usual mishaps with such projects in recent years. In many cases investors had the most beautiful greenhouses built, but after construction the Dutch greenhouse builders ran off and the greenhouses were left to rot. Matters such as post harvest, the management and marketing after construction are increasing conditions in construction projects," says Mart. "All in all I don't think that every kilo of tomatoes extra on the market will come at the cost of the Dutch product: the consumption in Central and Eastern Europe is increasing greatly and it is expected to increase even more. It would be great if it could be done gradually, but the free market is the director of this."
Sustainable geothermal energy to heat the greenhouse
The manager of the Best Fresh Group does signal that the quality of the Dutch product has been slipping over the last decade. "The quality control has been loosened a little in general and ended up in commercial circles. Pepper growers who don't add a little heat in August in the early morning cold, pepper growers who import the weevil into their garden, stores of two day old vine tomatoes left in unconditioned warehouses at 30 degrees. These are just a few examples that do not benefit the quality of our product. The price pressure leaves no space for investment in quality. Auction presidents used to call for quality, quality and more quality at the yearly meetings. I really hope this subject gets more attention and if the quality drops even more, we will be approaching a vicious circle. And it's won't be going up!"
He believes initiative such as urban farming is a good promotion for our product. "I see fantastic initiatives being created with enthusiastic and fun cultivation on a small scale. This reaches emotions but not the production. If the Rotterdam youth start growing lettuce at their flats, I don't think it will be competitive. But it could be a great impulse to stimulate the 'minimum' fruit and vegetable consumption, as it has unfortunately been declining in Holland in the last decade."
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