Vegetable and salads breeder and grower Rijk Zwaan is proud of its history of charting an independent course, which has resulted in a strong business that’s at the forefront of innovation and sustainability
The history of the Rijk Zwaan company, starting from a small seed shop, then growing into an international business that navigated a corporate sale, is an inspiring tale of ownership that puts its workers at the heart of its development.
Investment in people
This loyalty and investment in people is, as the company proudly exclaims, one of the foundations of its success. The business has racked up achievement after achievement on a yearly basis. In 2016 alone it has acquired a subsidy in Greece, and launched a new product that it claims extends the shelf life of lettuce for up to two days.
The founder, who gave his name to the company, steered a steady ship from opening his shop in Rotterdam in 1924 to the day he retired and handed the reins to his son Jaap, who continued his father’s work until he too contemplated retirement. Unfortunately, his children were not keen to take over the business and he was made an offer by the oil company BP in 1986.
This is where the story could have taken a different turn, given the history of corporate takeovers that often result in the shedding of jobs. However, the directors, Anton van Doornmalen and Ben Tax, stood their ground and ensured that BP did not interfere with the way the company was run.
Some three years later when BP sold up, a management buyout by Doornmalen, Tax, and the recently joined Maarten Zwaan, a nephew of Jaap’s, meant the company has continued to keep its independent course.
Coping with climate change
Now it is working steadily to confront new challenges, principally that of climate change and the impact it is having now and in the future on the production of produce and the resources required for the growth of healthy, and tasty, vegetables and fruit.
The UK’s country manager, Gerard van der Hut, says that climate change is an issue that everyone will have to deal with. “It will have an impact on everybody, therefore, also with breeding companies,” he says. “At Rijk Zwaan we are very aware of this change, and are continuously looking for natural solutions to help the supply of food. This, naturally, has to be integrated into all the other aspects as well like, health, yield, flavour, shelf life, and looks etc.
“Our pre-breeders and all in Rijk Zwaan are always looking for these traits, and with the help of gene banks are hopeful that there will be some solutions to aid this process.”
As well as finding solutions for future sustainability, Zwaan is actively working on reducing waste. At Fruit Logistica this year, the company introduced Knox™ to the trade. Knox™ is a trait in lettuce varieties that helps to extend shelf life by delaying the discolouration, or pinking, process after cutting. The trait is the result of 10 years of research and development by Rijk Zwaan, and its unique effect has been subsequently confirmed in various in-house laboratory tests and large-scale production trials. About 10 varieties of lettuce now have this trait.
“It enables retailers to improve their inventory situation,” says Van der Hut. “Processing companies no longer need to pack the lettuce in low-oxygen bags, plus they have more options to create blends of several different types. Ultimately the consumer benefits. By extending the shelf life, Knox™ can increase the purchase frequency of pre-packed lettuce, and that will help us to boost worldwide lettuce consumption together.”
The difference between Knox™ and conventional product is clear
Love My Salad relaunch
Delegates at The London Produce Show and Conference will get a chance to talk with Rijk Zwaan about its new product, as well as its many ranges, at the company’s stand. Van der Hut says the team is excited about the upcoming event. “We are looking forward to meeting companies with the same enthusiasm about food and innovation as we have,” he says. “Encouraging the increase of vegetable consumption is why we are all there.”
The company certainly invests in raising awareness of the benefits of healthy eating, with it re-launching its popular Love My Salad website this year, which aims to encourage consumers to be inventive with the produce.
It’s not just on the consumer side that Rijk Zwaan is involved in using digital media to share information. It recently launched an app called Growing Partner, which is an exclusive service for its customers all over the world.
Once connected, customers can access growing tips and read other users’ reactions, and as its on a smartphone this makes it perfect for use in greenhouses and out in the field.
Getting ahead of trends, and understanding what the market wants, is what drives the company forward. Van der Hut says that they keep a close eye on what’s happening in the UK, and they can see the rewards of this with increased orders.
“We see for example vegetable replacements of carbs such as sweet potato and butternut squash pasta,” he remarks. “In our ranges we also see diversity with salad bags, bowls with bespoke tastes and imagination. Equally, smoothie bars are increasing significantly.”
Clearly it is not just the UK market that the company watches, but also the developments in the many areas of the world it has interests in. This recently led to the acquisition of the Rijk Zwaan’s Greek distributor Agrosystem.
The subsidy, named Rijk Zwaan Hellas, is based in Irapetra on the island of Crete where it also has a trial station. Rijk Zwaan has been active in Greece for over 35 years, but felt that with the Greek agri-food sector undergoing rapid change, with an increase in high-tech greenhouses being built, and chain management on the rise, it could play a more leading role.
“Our own subsidiary will enable our breeders to respond to the needs of the Greek market even more quickly, and it will also improve the availability of information for the entire chain,” says Marco van Leeuwen, the subsidy’s managing director. “Hence, the opening of Rijk Zwaan Hellas will help us to expand our product assortment and launch varieties even faster. The country has good export opportunities to the Balkan region and other European countries, especially in the winter and early spring. Thanks to our top-class varieties, we can make a significant contribution to the year-round availability of high-quality vegetables.”
With such a solid history of expertise and skill nurtured over 92 years, its seems the future of vegetable production is safe in Rijk Zwaan’s hands.