In 2019 Dutchman Arjan Kouwenhoven opened a brand new tomato farm in Brazil, one of the few high-tech greenhouse operations in the South American country. Business was slow to begin with, thanks in part to the coronavirus pandemic. Since then they have gone from strength to strength and now supply vine tomatoes year round to around 25 Brazilian supermarket chains. They handle everything in-house, from raising the tomato plants to packing and transporting the tomatoes.
57-year-old Arjan Kouwenhoven’s career took various turns before he finally settled in Brazil in 2016. However, everything in his background “breathes” horticulture. And that’s not surprising, given that he grew up in a horticultural family in a town outside The Hague, where his father and brothers grew vegetables and flowers.
“So it was obvious that I would go to horticultural school too,” he says. “After that I took over my father’s business along with my brother. We started growing loose tomatoes. When gas became very expensive in the 1980s, we switched to growing gypsophila on rockwool. That was ground-breaking at the time, but that’s me all over. I get fidgety when things become routine!”
In the early 1990s, deteriorating market conditions forced the Kouwenhoven brothers to close their business. Arjan then embarked on a new adventure: he went to the USA to run a cucumber farm. That wasn’t quite his thing, though, so his next stop was Russia, where he helped growers set up greenhouse businesses. “Setting up new things really energises me,” he says.
Growing systems and gutters
After eighteen months in Russia, Kouwenhoven returned to the Netherlands, where he turned his attention to designing, developing and producing growing systems. At that time, in the mid-1990s, rose and gerbera cultivation on substrate and at height was beginning to take off. “I worked with a group of growers and other stakeholders on designing growing racks for these. And later on we also came up with a special type of growing gutter for greenhouse crops. In 2000 we brought these activities together in a dedicated company: FormFlex. We supplied our growing gutters to growers all over the world. In 2010 we merged with the supplier Metazet. I became a co-owner but decided to sell my shares in 2014. It was time for a new challenge.”
Opportunities in Brazil
Kouwenhoven found this new challenge in Brazil, where he decided to set up his own horticultural business. He already knew the country, having travelled all over the world in his role with FormFlex. “I recognised that there were plenty of opportunities in the Brazilian market for quality tomatoes, as the fruiting vegetables available in the shops here were of poor quality. This is because almost all Brazilian tomatoes are grown outdoors: there were and are still hardly any fruiting vegetables grown in high-tech greenhouses here. So there was plenty of scope on the quality front.”
The Dutchman and his wife Tatjana left nothing to chance. They drew up a list of criteria that the new business location had to meet, eventually settling on Andradas, a municipality in the south-east of the country 90 km north of Holambra − a name that is familiar to many growers. “We chose this area partly because of the climate. We wanted a location that was not too hot in summer but not too cold in winter either. It doesn’t go above 30°C in summer and only drops a few degrees below zero in winter at most.”
The location was also chosen for logistical reasons. “Transport accounts for a significant part of the cost price, so it is important to be close to your sales market. We are within a ten-hour drive of major world cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Another advantage was that there was already a gas pipeline here – something you can’t take for granted in Brazil. The water supply is also sorted: there is precisely enough rainfall here to see us through the year. We collect it in reservoirs.”
Delay due to coronavirus
Kouwenhoven bought a piece of land in Andradas in 2017, which was levelled in 2018 and where construction of 1.5 hectares of production greenhouses and a 0.3 hectare propagation greenhouse was started in 2019. These Venlo-type greenhouses were furnished largely according to Dutch standards, featuring shading and energy screens, a climate computer and so on.
The grower was hoping to get off to a flying start with vine tomato production in early 2020, but coronavirus threw a spanner in the works. “The build was going well, but the pandemic broke out just when the climate computer, boiler and screen systems were about to be put into operation. So it was impossible for specialists from the Netherlands to get over here. I had to fix everything up myself, aided by phone and video calls from the Netherlands. In the end, we could only start sowing in September 2020. I also had a lot of help and support from Dutch project management firms CombiCoop and CombiVliet, both during the process and afterwards.”
The grower chose to keep the entire production process, including propagation, in-house. “I see this as a must to keep out viruses such as ToBRFV. And in general, we also manage to keep pests and diseases under control without using a lot of chemistry. Probably because nature is more balanced here: there is a plentiful supply of natural enemies here.”
Coronavirus was not the only obstacle the company faced in the early days. Sales were also an issue to begin with, despite the fact that Kouwenhoven had reached agreements with supermarket chains in advance. “Our vine tomatoes regularly got mixed in with Brazilian product. That was far from ideal, as our vine tomatoes are better quality and also taste better. Three years ago our product was completely new to the Brazilian consumer, so we had to get our name out there. That wasn’t easy at first.”
But sales are now on track, with Fonte Verde Agro, as the company is called, delivering vine tomatoes directly to around 25 Brazilian supermarket chains. The product is packed in the customer’s packaging on site and transported to the retailers in the company’s own fleet of trucks. “We supply 500 stores within a radius of 1,500 to 2,000 kilometres of our site,” Kouwenhoven says. “And in addition to vine tomatoes, we also grow several specialty tomato varieties, in small numbers. These are mainly meant to trigger supermarket buyers; that helps to get in.”
The Brazilian consumer has come to appreciate Fonte Verde Agro vine tomatoes, despite the fact that they are more expensive than “regular” outdoor tomatoes. “Once consumers have tasted our tomatoes, they are won over. And there is also plenty of untapped potential: around 50 per cent of Brazil’s population of nearly 220 million are sufficiently well off to be able to afford our product. That was also the reason why we doubled in size last year: the production greenhouse is now three hectares. And there is still room to grow to an area of 12 hectares. What timeframe that will happen in depends on both sales and the organisation. They also need to be ready for this.”
Lack of knowledge
Kouwenhoven employs about forty people, mainly from the immediate vicinity. Finding enough staff is not an issue, he says. “This was another of the criteria we set for the location. But there are challenges on the labour front. For example, most workers don’t have enough knowledge to be able to use the Dutch technology. We have to train them ourselves. Some of our people go to the Netherlands for a while to brush up their knowledge. But that is also tricky as most of them speak little or no English.”
What is more, the Brazilian work ethic is sometimes an issue, the grower says. He has introduced various incentives to encourage employee engagement, such as providing breakfast and lunch on the premises. “This also helps prevent viruses being introduced on food brought in by workers. By doing something extra for our people like this, we hope to be able to encourage them to go the extra mile.”
Plenty of potential
Further growth is therefore a goal for the future. In addition, Fonte Verde Agro wants to replace some of the gas they use in the winter with heat from wood. “We are in the process of installing a wood-fired boiler. This will make us more sustainable; also, wood is 25 percent cheaper than gas.”
Looking back, Kouwenhoven has no regrets about the Brazilian challenge he took up. “To be honest, it hasn’t always been easy – not least because of the phenomenal bureaucracy and administrative burden in this country. And the culture and customs are very different, so you sometimes have to improvise. But on balance, there is plenty of potential for high-tech tomato growing in Brazil; that’s something I’m still convinced of.”
Text: Ank van Lier, images: Fonte Verde Agro