When Angel Rodriguez with Bioplants started to work on organic herb plants in degradable pots, people looked at him as if he was a Martian. Back in 2004, growing plastic-free was not a thing yet. At the same time, French retailers liked his solution regardless and had confidence in his product. Fast-forward to 2022 and the company is growing in a completely new 1,5 ha greenhouse, still delivering sustainable plants to French supermarkets. “Thanks to the new greenhouse, we can produce up to 2,5 times more.”
“Back in early 2000, we saw aromatic herb companies in the UK, Scandinavia, US, the Netherlands, but we didn’t find these in French supermarkets. This type of product was only to be found in garden centers,” Angel recalls. “But that’s a different market: you do not have as much pressure as in supermarkets, where food security, traceability, freshness, homogeneity, and steady supply are crucial as well. From our mother company in Switzerland, Max Schwarz AG, we knew the fresh market and decided to step in.”
Since its inception, the company decided to grow their herbs 100% organic, eco-conceived, and without plastics. “If we used plastic, it needed to be recycled: for example, the tray in the cardboard box is PET because that’s recycled material and can be recycled by the stores.” Over the years, their product developed further. “For example, we switched from compostable PLA to paper. It might seem like an easy step, but it took three years of R&D and trials to find the right paper, with the right quality and resistance to humidity, traceability, certifications, and so on”, Angel says. “But now, we see that our efforts are paying off: we are recognized by major distributors in France such as Carrefour, Systeme-U, Intermarche, Leclerc and many others. We might not be the biggest, but we’re leading the innovation in the field.”
Greenhouse of our dreams
Up until last year, Bioplants always worked in rented greenhouses. “We wanted to expand and build the greenhouse of our dreams. At the same time, we also saw the necessity to future-proof our business”, says Angel. “Society loves innovative solutions as robotization and technically digitalized greenhouses. We really focused on that.”
It might not come as a surprise that these projects didn't sprout overnight like some magical beans. Together with their partners Richel Group and Codema Systems, it took roughly 4 to 5 years to achieve the right model. “I go back a long time with Richel Group, I already worked with them back in the past. Ever since the launch of their double plastic roof, it is a long time ago, I followed them and saw how they delivered innovative systems adapted to the growers' wishes. On top of that, their proximity and the fact that we speak the same language made up an all-inclusive package for us– of course also with a competitive price”, he says.
14 to 17 species
Together with the partners, they drew, calculated, contemplated, debated, and went back and forth to design the ultimate growing system. “We grow about 14 to 17 species of herbs, and they all have different cycles, different germination types, different growing times, different preferred conditions”, Angel sums up. “In the past, we planned a lot based on our experience and our green thumb: we have this space available, so we can put the basil here and some salad here. Now we have a totally digital system to work with, which means that we can optimize everything. In the germination room, we separate the species that need two days for germination from the species that need seven days of germination. We put our knowledge in the system and it offers the best solution back.”
As a result, the company uses their 1,5-hectare acreage more efficiently. “From the same 1,5 hectare we had available in our rented greenhouse, now our capacity is 2,5 times bigger since we can work day by day in the germination, propagation, and growing area. Instead of the 7-8 rotations we used to do, we can now do 11, meaning that we can progress and make more turnover in the same space.” And, possibly even more importantly, there’s much more room to focus on each plant's needs, resulting in a more stable production and better quality.
New level of automation
“The roles of our team members have changed as well”, Angel continues. “Of course, the new level of automation gives us new tools to evaluate every situation, but despite the greenhouse being much more automated, we did not lose anybody from our old team – also because from the start, we have been relying on a highly qualified team. Now, their jobs have changed: with the robotics system, the mind has to procrastinate everything: each member needs to understand the processes we go through completely.”
It should be clear by now: the team with Bioplants is ready for 2022. At the same time, Angel is sure about the importance of staying innovative to remain at the forefront of the market. COVID has only emphasized that, and so do the developments in the French market. “In 2020, we performed a bit better than normal. In 2021, we saw that French supermarkets were changing: with fewer retail organizations and the same number of growers, competition is fierce. On top of that, there are climate challenges and the shift to a more digitized marketplace. The Internet really changed things.”
He explains how working with Carrefour and Intermarche on the one hand makes it easier for the company to capitalize on the digital trend. “As a company, we were already preparing for that – but with COVID, things went faster. We had to take two steps in one. For small companies like us, it’s difficult to maintain high-level quality, a good partnership with clients, and adapt to a new way of marketing. However, we remain confident because we believe in what we do. With 12 people, of whom there are 5 engineers, we can adapt to a lot of things.”