Tensions ran high at the start of the Dutch strawberry season. That was due to the question of whether enough seasonal workers could be found. That’s what Fresh Forward’s Ruud Venner, Product Developer, and Koen Merkus from Marketing saw. This Dutch company specializes in breeding new strawberry varieties. They say, in the end, already-present immigrant laborers met most of the strawberry farmers’ needs.
Creative solutions involving the hospitality industry and local staff contributed to there being sufficient personnel at peak times. These two men add that prices have been quite good until now. Ruud indicates that the good weather and holidays played a role in this. Koen also noticed that unlike other products in the fruit aisle, soft fruit didn’t benefit as much from increased consumption. This increased consumption was due to the coronavirus outbreak. Soft fruit is simply not easy to stockpile.
The Fresh Forward men have noticed a more general market development. Strawberry farming is being upscaled. Ruud thinks this trend will continue. The retail sector plays an essential role in this. Ruud says retail organizations are increasingly demanding more, preferably consistent, high-quality strawberries year-round. “This demand is mostly met by larger companies. They have multiple cultivation systems. They can supply high-quality strawberries throughout the year,” he says.
“Retail organizations prefer using a few large-scale suppliers rather than many suppliers, each with limited volume,” Ruud adds. Koen says that when there’s upscaling, certain aspects are somewhat more important. One of these is labor costs. “We, therefore, focus on varieties that are easier to pick. They must offer significant efficiency gains on such a scale.” Labor availability and costs are and will remain an issue. So, Fresh Forward is also busy developing strawberry varieties that can be mechanically harvested.
“We expect a picking robot will be introduced soon,” says Ruud. It’s not clear how quickly this will be developed, though. What is clear is that this will require different varieties. “Should mechanical harvesting becomes the future; you must bring the two together. This robot still needs to be much improved. But breeding can accommodate such a robot. Breeding can, for example, provide varieties that fruits remain a good size. They can also have fewer fruits per bunch,” says Koen.
Koen’s noticed another market trend. Different growers used to use the Elsanta broadly. This variety’s now often being replaced, not by a different big one, but by various alternatives. Ruud says the Elsanta variety has become delineated. And, currently, there are new varieties with better qualities. These include a better appearance, shelf life, and flavor. These new varieties are being bred explicitly for different cultivation systems. These are full soil, greenhouse, (outdoor) tunnels, and outdoor elevated planters, whether in tunnels or not.
It’s also clear that not every strawberry variety fares equally well in every farming system. “We breed separate plants for every cultivation system. This increases the chance of finding a suitable variety,” says Ruud. Fresh Forward has seen that there’s less and less full soil farming. “Sales organizations use price differentiation to steer more toward protected cultivation instead of full soil farming,” Ruud explains. Fresh Forward, therefore, has three selection programs. One is for Northern European varieties.
It’s primarily aimed at Germany, Eastern Europe, and Scandinavia. Here the Verdi variety was recently introduced to the market. Then there a Mediterranean selection program. It focuses on winter production in the areas around the Mediterranean Sea. The Calinda is a successful strawberry variety in this program. There’s also a germination program. It produced the tasty Soprano variety two years ago. “In this way, we want to expand and be less dependent on the prominent varieties like Sonata or Elsanta,” Koen remarks.
In recent years, Fresh Forward has been focusing mainly on sustainability when it comes to breeding processes. “A variety must be good at its core. It can’t be susceptible to fungal diseases. These include Phytophthora Cactorum, Verticillium, and mildew. In this way, we can minimize the use of pesticides.” Naturally, flavor and shelf life also play crucial roles when a new strawberry variety’s being developed. Shelf life, especially, is vital to retailers.
“A supermarket’s biggest ultimate cost item is product loss,” says Ruud. The example Koen mentions proves that this aspect can be profitable. “Calinda, our Mediterranean variety, has four to five times less waste percentage at retailers than other Mediterranean strawberries.” Fresh Forward uses specific software that monitors and calculates strawberry selections’ shelf life. “So, we can quantify the loss of quality. This includes color and volume loss and the formation of Botrytis,” conclude the two men.
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