A grower of asparagus and blueberries looking for additional cultivation, an importer who is investigating whether the cultivation of exotic crops is closer to home is possible due to the changing climate, and a retailer who works with home-grown products as much as possible. This brought grower Franc Goertz, Nature's Pride and supermarket chain PLUS together in a chain project to grow sweet potatoes in the Netherlands.
With a cultivation of 28 ha of sweet potatoes, it is by far the largest Dutch cultivation project for the fresh market. This week the spade broke the soil to symbolically harvest the first sweet potatoes, although they still have to grow. From mid-September until at least mid-January, the Dutch sweet potatoes are exclusively available at PLUS.
From left to right: Marijn Hilbrink, Joost Hoes (PLUS), Sjaak van der Waaij (Nature's Pride) and Franc and Paulien Goertz
Experience in Portugal
“We have been active in the cultivation of asparagus, asparagus plants and blueberries for years. We have been doing this for seven years in Portugal. A lot of sweet potatoes are grown on nearby plots and due to the changing climate in the Netherlands we saw an opportunity to pick up the cultivation in our own country. We have been conducting trials on a small scale for a few years, but we see so many opportunities that this year we immediately started with 28 hectares. And we have opportunities to further expand the cultivation in the coming years ", says Franc. The main variety is the orange-fleshed variety Orleans, supplemented by the varieties Beauregard, Covington and Bellevue.
The sweet potatoes are grown under biodegradable film without the use of chemicals. In terms of cultivation, Goertz foresees few problems, also because the highly sandy soils of the asparagus fields lend themselves perfectly to the cultivation of sweet potatoes. The three last warm summers were also ideally suited for the cultivation of sweet potatoes. He says the challenge lies mainly in the work.
"There is a lot of manual work involved. We need dozens of people for planting in June and the harvest from September onward. Fortunately, we have a lot of experience with our other crops. The cultivation of sweet potatoes connects seamlessly with the work in our other crops. The asparagus season will end in June and we will close the blueberry season in September," says the Limburg grower, whose acreage is around 250 hectares in total.
Franc and Paulien Goertz
For the sale of the sweet potatoes, Goertz approached Nature's Pride, which annually markets a considerable volume of sweet potatoes in European retail, but has never sold home-grown sweet potatoes. "Last year we imported sweet potatoes from the United States, Egypt, Honduras, Spain, Costa Rica, Senegal and South Africa. On average, we sold around 200,000 kilos a week," says purchaser Sjaak van der Waaij.
"It is a product group that has developed enormously over the past five years. We are taking a new step with Dutch cultivation, in which we expect to be able to offer sweet potatoes from our own country for at least five months. We expect the sweet potato to expand further and further and develop into a product with a stable market and that is important, because then everyone in the chain can earn something from it. "
New EAT ME packaging
Grower Goertz supplies the sweet potatoes in reusable bins to Nature's Pride, where the products are sorted and packaged at the packaging location in Westland. For this there is a new packaging line where the potatoes are brushed and sorted, and there is also a quality check. Especially for Dutch sweet potatoes, the importer developed a new 750 gram cardboard packaging under the EAT ME brand, in which the product is clearly visible. "PLUS is a good customer of ours for our exotics and homegrown product is an important pillar in their strategy. When it became clear that Nature's Pride could take care of the sale of these sweet potatoes, my first phone call was to PLUS", said account manager Frits de Bruin.
"Although Nature's Pride imports exotics via air and sea freight from all corners of the world, more and more attention is being paid to the opportunities closer to home," Frits continues. "The change in the climate offers new opportunities for crops that were previously not thought possible in the Netherlands. We are therefore testing several products. This way we can drastically reduce our CO2 emissions. It is an explicit wish of our retail customers to get more local produce. But to supply a supermarket, you need volume from growers who dare to invest. Goertz's plans were therefore perfectly in line with our strategy."
Janita van der Ende (Nature's Pride), Marijn Hilbrink, Joost Hoes (PLUS), Frits de Bruin (Nature's Pride) and Franc Goertz
Dutch sweet potatoes for more than five months a year
The Dutch retailer was happy to commit to the project. "It is in line with PLUS' purchasing strategy to work with products from Dutch soil as much as possible. This allows us to serve our customers entirely with sweet potatoes from the Netherlands for more than five months a year, which is unique in the market," says purchaser Marijn Hilbrink. "And that local aspect is becoming increasingly important for our customers. There is a growing demand from consumers for responsible, honest products of regional origin. When we offer potatoes from Israel, for example, our customer service receives more complaints than in other years."
"It also fits in with PLUS' drive. We are a Dutch supermarket and embrace our Dutch growers. Moreover, this also provides a major advantage in terms of sustainability and quality: less CO2 emissions and a fresher and tastier product! That's why we are working hard to take new steps in making our range more sustainable. This summer, we will also be the only supermarket in the Netherlands that sells 100% Dutch blueberries," says Marijn.
"In addition, the potential for the sale of sweet potatoes is still enormous," says category manager Joost Hoes. “Although we serve a relatively traditional buyer group, sales of sweet potatoes have grown enormously in recent years. Sweet potatoes are still not on the shopping list of all our consumers, but with the right communication on the shop floor and the local aspect, we expect to entice many more customers to impulse purchase. By offering the sweet potatoes, both separately with the cooking vegetables and legumes as well as packaged separately in the potato section and running the necessary offers, we expect to achieve a significant increase in turnover. "