Nearly 20 years ago two Dutch and two Belgian growers joined forces and bought an existing greenhouse in the USA. It was a chance for the Belgians to expand their business in an increasingly limited market and for the two young Dutchman to start their American Dream. Today their company Intergrow Greenhouses, in New York State, is planning to expand again as the demand for greenhouse grown tomatoes, available year round, continues to rise.
Dutchmen Dirk Biemans and Mario van Logten were already working in the USA when in 1993 they were introduced to Belgian grower John Vermeiren, of Loenhout. He was interested in expanding overseas and had already noticed that Dutch and Belgian tomatoes yielded a good margin in the USA, despite the high air transport costs. “My business partner, Dirk van den Plas, and I saw good opportunities,” recalls Vermeiren. “The amount of greenhouse cultivation was limited and a good price was then paid for greenhouse tomatoes. Tomatoes were being exported from the Netherlands – and Belgium – which despite the high air transport costs of one dollar per kilo yielded a good margin. That got us really thinking.”
However, Vermeiren and van den Plas, didn’t want to emigrate. On the other hand, the two young Dutchmen who were already in the US had the necessary horticultural experience, knew the local situation well and it appeared wanted to set-up their own greenhouse. “We hit it off well and during conversations it seemed that the men would like to start their own company, preferably with one or two partners,” says Vermeiren. This paved the way for a partnership which saw them taking over an existing 6 ha greenhouse in Portageville, south of Lake Ontario in western NY. Intergrow Greenhouses was born.
The purchase was the beginning of a close cooperation based on equal financial and strategic input, which still stands firm. The two Dutchmen run the American greenhouses; Biemans looks after the general management and Van Logten is crop manager. Vermeiren and Van den Plas are shareholders in the business and act as a strategic and technical sounding board. Vermeiren and his wife Lia also have 8.5 ha of greenhouses in Belgium and are currently building a further 10 ha in Meer, for loose plum tomatoes (including San Marzano) and beef tomatoes. Vermeiren, along with Dirk van den Plas and his former manager Tom Lefevre run Hortipower, in Merksplas, and developed the ‘B-to-B label’ Tomeco, which serves the top segment of the market.
Meanwhile Intergrow has become an established name in north east USA. Its high value beef, on-the-vine and cherry tomatoes are well known in New York and surrounding area. Its recognisable trucks, which deliver products to the supermarkets’ distribution centres, also make a contribution.
However, it wasn’t all plain sailing. The first year was difficult, especially in commercial terms, recall Biemans and Vermeiren. “Supermarkets wanted the quality tomatoes we could supply, but as a newcomer you don’t quickly have a foot in the door.” It took some time before repeat orders started coming in and buyers were prepared to make long-term contacts. That changed as buyers started to appreciate the year-round supply.
“We still do our own sales and marketing and we have direct contact with retailers and wholesalers. With some retailers we have long term agreements, even a yearly contract, and with others we sell on a shorter basis, monthly or quarterly,” says Biemans.
As demand grew so did the company. In 2003 it built a new greenhouse in Albion which has since been extended to 22 hectares. Intergrow is currently seeking planning permission to build a further 10 hectares in Webster, also in NY state and about an hour’s drive from the other locations. “We chose this location due to the availability of both natural gas and electricity. There is plenty of land available in the US but it’s difficult to find a property with gas and electricity,” says Biemans. They hope to start levelling the ground this autumn.
“We feel there is still growth in the market.” The share of greenhouse produce is increasing at the expense of field grown produce, says the grower. “But there are currently only a few greenhouse growers in the northeast of the USA.” Also more than a quarter of American consumers live within a day’s drive of Intergrow’s production sites. As well as offering market potential, “this also fits with our philosophy of delivering fresh product to our consumers within one day. We promote the tomatoes as being locally grown in New York state although some retailers are more proactive in marketing this than others,” says Biemans.
“However, we do sense it is very important to be able to supply year-round. During the winter most retailers appreciate the greenhouse grown tomatoes which we produce using artificial lighting. About 40% of our total acreage – currently 28.5 hectares – is lit using high pressure sodium lights and if the new greenhouse gets the go-ahead that will be completely lit.”
The greenhouses are typical of those in the Netherlands. “We stay up to date with the Dutch on greenhouse equipment, packaging equipment etc. We aren’t using the principles of Next Generation Growing but we do have diffuse glass on the roof which we’ve used since 2011. We try improved varieties when they become available which tend to be the same varieties as those in the Netherlands and Belgium,” he says.
One of the biggest challenges for growers in the US is the weather. “It is more extreme here than in Belgium and the Netherlands and it is warmer for a longer period of time. We try to go into the summer with a strong crop so that the plants can withstand the weather.”
Over the years the need to fly to and from Belgium and the USA has become less but the contact between the partners has by no means diminished. Thanks to enhanced means of communication they still hold weekly conference calls and receive cultivation support from a distance from colleagues at Horti-Consult in Deurne, the Netherlands.
Both Biemans and van Logten travel to Belgium once or twice per year and vice versa Vermeiren and van den Plas visit the US once or twice to discuss cultivation techniques and investment in technical equipment. The more information you can share the better it is,” says Biemans.
With the support of two Belgian growers two young Dutchmen started a greenhouse in the United States in the late 1990s. Since then Intergrow Greenhouses has grown from 6 to 28.5 ha, at two locations. They hope to start levelling the ground for a third greenhouse before the end of the year. The greenhouse supplies beef, on-the-vine and cherry tomatoes to retailers in north east USA.
Text: Jan van Staalduinen en Helen Armstrong
Images: Intergrow and Jan van Staalduinen