We spoke to ZON's Wouter Willems and Jørgen Snoijink at the start of November. Wouter is the auction and trade manager at this Dutch cooperative. Jørgen manages its marketing and accounts. At that time, for many products, the 2020 cultivation season was all but over. It was one that, for many, was and still is largely dominated by COVID-19. In ZON Magazine, Wouter and Jørgen cautiously draw up the year's preliminary balance sheet.
‘It would be an understatement to say the coronavirus greatly affected the running of cultivation companies this past year. Just think of the difficulties in finding pickers. That was when this pandemic broke out in March. At first, this was mainly in the asparagus season. So, it's quite remarkable that that product group was able to record a good season across the board. That's despite our gloomy initial expectations. The same applies to bell peppers, cocktail tomatoes, and aubergines," Wouter says, reflecting on the almost-over year.
Dutch bell pepper grower, Frank Bakker, is indeed satisfied. "We had an excellent season. When the coronavirus broke out, I was a bit skeptical, but I'm now 100% satisfied. I'm happy with ZON's dual strategy. It suits my company and the bell pepper product well. The share sold to key accounts is growing annually too. That's a good thing," he says.
For TOV and loose tomato farmers is was, unfortunately, a disappointing season. As for other products that are usually sold mainly to the hospitality sector. These include yellow courgette and red chicory. Red chicory grower, Marjo Engelen, can confirm this. "I have only one word for it - shit. Our product's sales largely depend on hospitality businesses. So, when those closed, we sold barely anything. Hang in there and carry on - that's our motto at the moment. And hope the restaurants can reopen very soon."
Tomato grower Peet Withagen of Kwekerij Zonnekreek, says he lost some hospitality clients. Nevertheless, he's 'moderately satisfied' when he looks back on the season as a whole. "Luckily, we also have a product for the retail sector. That limited the damage reasonably well. It could have been much worse for us," says Withagen.
"The season is, of course, not entirely over," says Wouter. "The lit cultivated tomatoes are still on their way. We can help several clients beautifully with that in the winter. And of course, as usual, we'll continue with the traditional winter vegetables such as leeks. But, at a glance, for now, we're talking about six percent more turnover and four percent more sales across the board. With the same acreage as anticipated."
Jørgen elaborates on the hospitality industry's closure at the beginning of the season and the current second closure. "The timing of the hospitality industry closing when the season started couldn't have been worse. From then on, certain farmers have had a lousy year. These are those who supply most of their products to the foodservice and hospitality sectors. For some, that still applies today."
"On the other hand, real supermarket products - like bell peppers - growers had a great year, as Wouter pointed out. Supermarkets' unprocessed vegetable category has increased by more than ten percent in monetary terms. This year's Q2 and Q3 increases were are high as 13%, which is truly unprecedented. There's an even bigger increase of 23% at greengrocers and vendors. People avoiding busy supermarkets explains this. This channel accounts for 11% of all vegetable sales."
‘It's a real break with the trend - for the first time in years, unprocessed vegetable sales have grown faster than those of processed vegetables. That's because more people are cooking at home. That's because the hospitality industry closed. So, many consumers actively started looking for recipes. Also on social media," continues Jørgen.
"That inspired them, and they rediscovered 'doing it yourself', as it were. We saw this on our own platform too. All this led to this substantial increase in sales of unprocessed vegetables. There was another reason for this shift toward social media - getting recipes, and so on. Retailers couldn't have shop floor activities. That's because of the 1.5m regulation."
Wouter says he's pleased with ZON's dual strategy. "Account clients are growing particularly fast. That's regarding volume, which, of course, adds a lot of value for our growers. Supply and demand are, naturally, never 100% linked with accounts. So, combined with auction sales, I think it's been a real blessing. However, we must move further up the chain. We mustn't only facilitate providers. We must take the end customer more into account too."
Jørgen says he can see a clear, increased involvement from growers in key accounts. That's because of these positive results. "And not only among farmers either. I've noticed a huge difference within ZON compared to a few years ago. There are no longer any islands within the company. Whether it concerns operations or, say, quality assurance, each department is aware of our strategy's importance as a single company. We must serve account clients well."
Wouter adds, ‘Naturally, our business is keen to get growers involved in our approach. We work with farmers in auction and account working groups. We want to roll out these dual strategies. Here, the farmers and the ZON each have its responsibilities."
What do the two gentlemen think lies ahead for 2021? "Our OGSM strategy will remain largely intact. Next year, we'll move a little more toward accounts. The question is whether our existing clients still have sufficient growth potential. Or must we focus more on new clients? Germany is still our largest market, and I see true growth potential there," says Wouter.
"We're already in full discussion with the key accounts holders, and I have good expectations for that. As far as auctions are concerned, we're working very hard to further expand both the volume and range offered," Jørgen concludes.
Source: ZON Magazine