Two and a half years ago, Keelings International Ltd was established in the Netherlands as part of its Irish parent company. It now markets mainly self-grown pineapples and melons and has firm ambitions to make strides in European soft fruit production.
Keelings owns a 900-hectare farm in Costa Rica called Las Brisas, of which 200 hectares are rainforest. Along with pineapples, Keelings also sells a wide range of overseas Galia, Piel de Sapo, Cantaloupe, and yellow and watermelons. They cultivate these in Brazil, Costa Rica, and Honduras.
Ed Heijnen and Leon Hijweege
Ask anyone about pineapple imports, and they will quickly tell about the logistical issues. "In Costa Rica, the fruit's currently flowering naturally, so much of it's becoming available. However, the limited container availability means to supply, too, is limited," says Leon Hijweege.
"Many European summer fruits usually become available at this time of year, but Spain has been faced with adverse weather conditions. As a result, pineapples still remain at a very reasonable level. It always surprises me that pineapple/kg prices are quite low compared to other fruit."
"Over the years, the number of occasional importers on the pineapple market has declined significantly. Those who remain to serve the European market are mainly those with their own cultivation. We have a nice mix of customers and supply retailers throughout Europe," Leon continues.
"As well as hospitality wholesalers and processors. This industry's also an increasing market for our crownless pineapples. In the Netherlands, convenience has been a hot topic in supermarkets for some time. But also in Germany, the supply of, for example, fruit salads is increasing, especially in the summer."
"We have a unique concept in hand with our own cultivation. To keep chain control, retailers like doing business with producers. Las Brisas was recently Rainforest Alliance certified at the highest possible level. We market four lines; Classic, KO'LOR, PURE, and Fairtrade," Leon explains.
"PURE is a completely residue-free crop, which we cannot (yet) offer year-round. We've replaced chemical pesticides with organic ones. We use drone technology to optimize fertilizer and pest control usage. Also, the farm used 95% less water than other Costa Rican pineapple plantations. The end goal is CO2-neutral farms."
The overseas melon season has now ended at Keelings. "The Brazilian melon market was difficult," says Ed Heijnen. "In winter, retail melon consumption is lower anyway. But we didn't see pre-COVID volumes in the hospitality and foodservice industries this winter either. The Costa Rican melon sector's also struggling. Not surprisingly, 40% less was planted this season. And despite relatively high market prices, smaller players will probably drop out next season."
Pura Vida melon farm
"Here, too, the disrupted supply chain's impact is evident. There are normally peak shipments in weeks 15 to 17. This year, some boats didn't leave, so a lot of melons went to the juice market at low prices. We're now trying to continue the season with Spanish melons and watermelons, but that quality's erratic thanks to the weather extremes. However, the nice weather means demand is fantastic. In fact, the current European melon kg price is unprecedented."
In Ireland, Keelings is a soft fruit market leader, a firm ambition for elsewhere in Europe. "Keelings has a clear strategy to position itself sharply and distinctively in the European soft fruit market. The soft fruit market grows seven to eight percent annually, which offers enormous potential for us," Ed says.
"This year, we started with Spanish strawberries and Moroccan berries, and we're also trying to get a foothold in Dutch cultivation. We want our cultivation area to double in five years. Therefore, we're explicitly looking to expand by attracting the right people and/or strategic partnerships to realize this growth."
Listening to Ed and Leon, you would not say the Dutch sales office has only been around for 30 months. "Sometimes, we can't help but feel pleased that we've built up such a great, diverse customer portfolio in such a short time. We're delighted with that. Our Irish parent organization gives us a solid base to realize our growth ambitions. Keelings' mission is 'better fruit, better world.' That genuinely runs like a thread through the company," the men concluded.