Whether you are at a market in a West African country, a local bazaar somewhere in Asia, or a supermarket in the Netherlands - chances are good you will find onions, grown in the clay soil of the Dutch province of Flevoland.
Wim and Eric Waterman at the office in Emmeloord
Back in 1998, Wim and Erik Waterman bought over a small business in the Dutch town of Emmeloord. Twenty-two years later, their company, Waterman Onions, has grown into one of the most significant players on the Dutch onion market. There, they dry, store, and package more than 140,000 tons of onions year-round. These are sent to diverse markets across the globe.
The next generation
Erik and Wim Waterman are the second generation of onion farmers in their family. Their father used to have a business in the village of Waarde in the Dutch province of Zeeland. But, the onion center of gravity in the Netherlands has shifted over the years. It has moved from the southwest of the country to other provinces.
Included are the polders of Flevoland, where 50% of the country’s onions now originate. Despite being spread throughout the Netherlands, this sector is still close-knit. “The Dutch onion sector remains a world of ‘everyone knows everyone else’,” says Erik. “Companies you do not see, are also not heard on this scene.”
“I have noticed that this closed mindset is changing within the current generation. They are far more transparent and open to the world outside. That is a break from the now still more conservative branch of the fruit and vegetable sector. Especially when we consider that onions businesses are often family-run.”
Small packaging for the Dutch consumer
“This openness and transparency are good qualities. Sometimes, however, face-to-face discussions are increasingly disappearing into the background. These are being replaced more and more by emails and chats,” continues Waterman. “Increased transparency has also contributed to everyone being kept up to date with the market situation.”
“This happens at lightning-speed, on the same day,” he says, laughing. “The internet has made for a 24/7 economy too. That only creates increased pressure to work more and longer hours. That is something we as seeing throughout our company. And not just in the fruit and vegetable sector. I do, however, think we can still handle things at the moment.”
A celebrity among the world’s onions
Onion acreage is on the rise in the Netherlands. This is mainly due to exports. Only ten percent of onions harvested are destined for the Dutch market; the remainder is sent across the border. “Dutch onions are the superstar of the fruit and vegetable world,” says Erik.
The Netherlands exports this product to about 130 countries. “With the methods we have available in the Netherlands, we are very well suited for the extremely long storage of onions. The product itself is also strong when it comes to quality.”
“Our Waterman onions are ‘infamous and famous’. That is thanks to their excellent storage quality and tremendously long shelf-life. Let me give a good example of this fantastic storage quality. I spoke to an importer in the Far East. He bought our onions and then stored them in his own facility for three to four more months.”
“At that time, there were still Chinese onions on the market. He sold these first. He could not store those onions, but he could store ours. Dutch onions’ extended shelf life also means governmental measures can severely restrict their export to various countries,” says Erik. “Countries such as Panama and Senegal want to protect their own onion cultivation.”
“They, therefore, partly or entirely close their borders to the importation of Dutch onions. This is done at a specific time of year. I cannot consider this protectionism as anything other than a kind of compliment for Dutch onions. Those countries’ local products simply cannot compete.”
“That is purely because our onions are qualitatively more robust and can be better stored. Our end product’s cost price per kg includes packaging and transport. These onions often compete well with those of other export countries too. Sometimes even with local onions,” the company co-owner says.
Waterman does not only export these Dutch onions. They also import onions from other countries. “Egypt has become an important player in recent years. They have a good quality red onion on the market,” says Erik. “We also get onions from New Zealand and Australia. From the latter, they mainly come from the island of Tasmania.”
Besides being exported, this company’s onions go mostly to retailers in the Dutch domestic market. “This market is reasonably stable and is not showing any strong growth at the moment. We will have to see what happens in the future,” says Erik.
Ready for transport
"Processing onions into a convenience item is, however, increasing tremendously - think of ready-to-eat meals and different vegetable packs and cuts. In the future, this could reach a ratio, on supermarket shelves, of 60% convenience products, and 40% netted onions. We see a continual rise in our clients’ demand for processed products.”
Automation and sustainability
Further consolidation of the onion sector is not the only notable development for the future. The automation of the branch will also play a crucial role. “Many of our processes are already highly automated. Although staff is still needed, they increasingly fulfill the role of an operator of sorts.”
“We can attract a lot of local people to come and work for us, if, at the same time, we offer to train them. We offer training as, for instance, a machine operator or forklift driver,” adds Erik. “This kind of approach works well if you are trying to attract new employees.”
Sustainability is another important theme for the Dutch onion sector. “Developing new varieties that are more resistant to, or tolerant of, specific diseases, such as Fusarium and thrips, is an admirable ambition. Breeding robust, resistant new onions is needed. Growers, who do conventional cultivation, are allowed to use fewer and fewer pesticides."
"I think conventional and organic farming is moving closer and closer together. However, in the future, particular attention should be paid to increased cooperation in the sector. Unity means strength - this is the only way we can retain our position in the different markets,” says Waterman.
Wim and Erik show the new logo
“It is also the only way we will reach our climate goals. At our company, we are already doing so. A large percentage of our sea containers are transported to the larger seaports via inland waterways. This includes the Flevokust Port near Lelystad in the Netherlands.”
“We have been part of this project since the get-go. We work with recyclable packaging and the sustainable manufacturing of nets too. Also, we generate 90% of our energy sustainably. In short - efficiency, quality, and sustainability go together well in our company,” concludes Erik.