John and Jolanda van der Lee have swapped the Netherlands for Azerbaijan to run an 11 hectare tomato nursery there. Before they left, they prepared as well as possible for the crop, which started on 20 August. They visited an Experience Center to learn more about the pink Tomimaru Muchoo beef tomato which they will be growing for the Russian market.

This isn’t the first time the couple have moved abroad. “For ten years we ran our own sweet pepper nursery in the south of the Netherlands,” John van der Lee says. We sold it in 2002 and moved to Spain, where we spent the next eight years working for Finca Boyal, a nursery in Don Benito belonging to the Dutch wholesaler Scherpenhuizen. We started off growing sweet peppers on ten hectares, and in our last two years there we grew high-wire cucumbers. Then we moved back to the Netherlands, where we spent a year at Red Star Tomatoes first and then five years at Vereijken Kwekerijen.”

Travellers in horticulture

After a while in the Netherlands the couple got itchy feet again. “We’re adventurous. Real travellers. We love seeing new cultures and different countries. Finding out how they do things there, integrating into the local community,” Jolanda says. “We have expertise in a certain area,” John adds. “What should we do with it? We’re two of many in the Netherlands. That knowledge is worth much more in other places. It’s so great when you can put your expertise to the best possible use somewhere else and make a real difference to a nursery.”

Up to now, they had always taken their two children with them on their adventures. Now it’s just the two of them, as the children are both studying in the Netherlands. Through the recruitment agency Lutgo they landed up at a brand new nursery in Azerbaijan that was looking for a tomato cultivation manager.

Financially strong project

Located between Russia and Iran, Azerbaijan is a small, oil-rich state which gained independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. According to Van der Lee, the country’s greenhouse horticulture sector is being given a substantial boost in the form of state subsidies as the government seeks to expand the country’s industrial base. “The nursery we work for is located near the capital Baku, in a thriving greenhouse horticulture area on the Caspian Sea. Traditionally this area has always been known as Russia’s vegetable garden. A lot of new greenhouses in this area have been built by Dutch greenhouse builders. They also look to the Netherlands when it comes to knowledge and new technology. Money is not an issue.”

The nursery where the couple work is owned by businessman Samed Kurbanov. For well-to-do entrepreneurs like him, the subsidy is an incentive to build greenhouse horticulture businesses and then bring in an expert cultivation manager to run them. But Kurbanov is also interested in greenhouse horticulture himself.

State-of-the-art nursery

The state-of-the art nursery is one year old and covers 11 hectares, with a further 10 hectares opening in a few months’ time. In total it will be a 30 hectare project, built by Dutch greenhouse builders Debets Schalke who have been actively exporting their products for more than six years. The equipment is almost 100% Dutch. “It’s a challenge to be given such a fast-growing nursery to organise and run,” the new cultivation manager says.

The greenhouse was built following the example of another nursery in the area, which is now four years old and run by a Turkish grower. There is insect mesh over the vents, which reduces the amount of air flow. So to compensate for this, there are always three vents in the greenhouse roof instead of two. The greenhouse has a single energy screen. Van der Lee recently visited the other similar nursery to see how the crops behave in the local hot and cold conditions.

He estimates there are about 70 people working there during the season. “It’s not hard to find workers here. This has always been a horticultural area and there’s a densely populated city nearby.” He doesn’t yet know exactly what level of training people have. “It’s a challenge to find the right people for the right job,” he says.

Pink tomatoes for Russia

Just as they did in the Netherlands, the van der Lees protect their crops with natural predators from Koppert or Biobest. Koppert’s products are supplied through an importer working with one of the nearby growers. Van der Lee again: “We get technical support and servicing from Dutch companies in collaboration with Debets Schalke as part of the turnkey project. The other horticultural requisites are local and in plentiful supply as this area is traditionally a horticultural one.”

The owner opted for the small pink Tomimaru Muchoo beef tomato from De Ruiter because there is a lot of demand for it in Russia. The plants are not grafted onto rootstock and are grown without artificial lighting. The first growing year was supervised by a cultivation manager from Latvia. John has now taken this over while his wife manages the staff. They received the plants for the new growing year on 20 August. “They come from a local Dutch-style young plant nursery. We are going to grow them on coir from Sri Lanka,” he says.

First foothold

Because of the similarities in the climate, the cultivation manager’s experience in Spain has proved to be a big advantage. Van der Lee: “From June onwards the days and nights are too hot to keep on growing tomatoes in Spain. When it’s the longest day in the Netherlands, you take the crop out there. Technically speaking, it’s a challenge to keep tomato production and quality up to standard as the light starts to fade.”

They don’t have any lighting yet. They have to make do with about 400 joules a day in winter at present, but he hopes to have lighting in place next year and is thinking of using SON-T lights.

The nursery is only growing pink beef tomatoes for now. “It’s still very early days,” he explains. “We first need to get a firm foothold in the market with a controllable, top quality product. In a few years’ time, we may also be able to grow other types of tomatoes for Russian customers.” Sales are handled by a team of people in the nursery.

Gathering knowledge

Van der Lee was unfamiliar with the pink beef tomato before they started growing it. So they decided to visit the De Ruiter Experience Center before they left the Netherlands to quickly gather as much information as possible about the variety. Manager John van der Knaap first showed them what the product should look like on mocked-up retail shelves. Van der Lee: “We noticed that the first tomatoes on the truss were very coarse. When the plant grows vigorously, it takes more effort to grow these tomatoes in an attractive shape. In winter this can quickly result in an excessive plant load. You can remove the first tomato if necessary. Then the next two will be good quality. That will be something for us to look at.”

Van der Lee also saw the effect of hot weather conditions. “The plants react vigorously to hot weather. You can see that by the shoots and laterals that start growing. Couple that with a strong rootstock and you can expect even more of these sorts of characteristics.” Van der Knaap also showed him a trial looking at the effects of different rootstocks. For the time being he is going to continue growing non-grafted plants. But the cultivation manager certainly thinks it’s something to keep in mind.


John and Jolanda van der Lee recently left the Netherlands for an 11 hectare tomato nursery near Baku in Azerbaijan. They have plenty of experience growing tomatoes at home and abroad and relish the challenge of setting up a new, ultra-modern nursery. Russia is the biggest sales market for nurseries in this region. Their nursery grows pink beef tomatoes, as yet without artificial lighting.

Text: Marleen Arkesteijn.