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Setting the innovation bar high


October 26, 2010
By Dave Harrison

Oct. 27, 2010, Amsterdam – Just how innovative have you been this year?

Oct. 27, 2010, Amsterdam – It’s as little after 11 p.m. and the bus has just rolled home —"home,” this week being the NH City Centre hotel — to conclude Day Two of “The Sustainability Initiative" sponsored by the Office of the Agricultural Counselor at the Netherlands Embassy in Washington.

I’m one of 10 delegates participating in this weeklong study. You can follow along, and indeed participate, by visiting www.thesustainabilityinitiative.org. Forums have been set up.

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Today’s take home message – set the innovation bar very high if you want your greenhouse business to survive and thrive in the coming years. Rising input costs and slimming profit margins will challenge every grower for the next few years, whether operating in the Netherlands or North America.

Hans van Es, director of the Dutch Produce Association, updated us on the group’s promotional efforts on behalf of its producer organizations. Ninety per cent of Dutch growers are members of one of the DPA member-associations. “The produce sector has been in a state of upheaval,” van Es told our group. (I’m sure the same comment could be made for North America; anyone back home care to weigh in on this one?) Consumers are more demanding in terms of new products and packaging, and competition among greenhouse vegetable marketers is intense.

But looking ahead to the future, van Es quipped that “you ain’t seen nothing yet.” New challenges include the Buy Local movement, just-in-time delivery schedules that can become logistical nightmares, and the need to increase mechanization – hopefully with the development of harvest robotics – to help control costs, to name a few. (Robotics is one of the projects of Demokwekerij Westland facilities of TNO, who you were introduced to in yesterday’s blog.)

His talk followed our tours of the tomato and pepper packing facilities (mostly tomatoes) of GreenPack, and the facilities of one of its member-growers, Lans Westland. Both are innovative and highly efficient operations. Respectively, they incorporate the latest technologies in sorting and packaging, and lighting and heating. (GreenPack makes its own retail containers onsite. Lans has a large cogen system.) These are examples of companies who are setting the innovation bar high.

Business as usual doesn’t cut it any more; to be financially sustainable, you have to re-invent yourself from time to time, working to keep up – and possibly lead – the pack in incorporating new ideas and strategies into your game plan.

And that leads us to the FloraHolland flower auction in Aalsmeer, which was our first stop of the day. This is a very busy place. One tour colleague described it as “organized chaos” after watching dozens of delivery carts darting about the shipping floor, seemingly within inches of one another, and doing so repeatedly. And they have to be quick; FloraHolland sells some 12 billion cut flowers and potted plants each year, with total annual sales of about four billion Euros.

Not content to rest on its laurels, FloraHolland is continuing to improve through innovation. And nothing is sacred, not even the “live” auction they’ve relied on for so many years, with carts of flowers being rolled through the hall as buyers lock in their bids. FloraHolland is phasing in its application of “image auctioning” – auction rooms in which buyers (in the auction hall or in off-site offices) eyeball product photos on their personal computer screens without the product even being present. Image auctioning will mean fewer interruptions in the sales process and a reduced risk of error. “Furthermore,” notes FloraHolland in a news release, “image auctioning leads to considerable optimization in the field of logistics.”

The bottom line is improved efficiency and lower costs – a win-win-win for growers, buyers and consumers. Even those on top, it would appear in this example, continue to set loftier goals.

So… what have you done this year to “raise the innovation bar” at your greenhouse?


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