By the end of June 2016, time was getting tight for cucumber grower Marco Zuidgeest. If he wanted to grow the innovative small core cucumber again this season, he would have to get an order to sow in soon. But the feedback from the customer was taking its time. Zuidgeest: “And with this sort of supply chain project, you can only move forward once everyone is happy. I’m a big fan.”
Zuidgeest has been selling cucumbers to the British company Greencore under contract via the Best of Four growers association for six years now. This convenience foods producer uses vegetables in ready meals, sandwiches, wraps, baguettes, sushi – you name it. The Food to Go division produces around 500 million pre-packed sandwiches per year. And what would a sandwich be without fresh slices of cucumber?
“Oh yes, they are a good customer of ours,” the cucumber grower continues. “We supply them with standard length cucumbers, and of course it’s always nice to have something special to offer. So I regularly ask the vegetable breeders whether they have anything new we can try.”
Cucumber crop coordinator Marcel van Koppen also heard his request, which immediately got him thinking about the variety 24-250 RZ. “Rijk Zwaan has been working on cucumbers with a smaller core for a while. Now we had a variety that came through our internal trials well. Marco wanted to try it out at his nursery, providing the customer agreed.”
Demand for “drier” cucumbers
The vegetable breeding company in De Lier already has several supply chain projects on the go and benefits from existing contacts with sectors such as the convenience market. “Our people keep in close touch with vegetable processing companies. You just have to think of lettuce for pre-packed mixes. The collaboration is mutual, by the way: we brainstorm, solve problems and come up with new products together.”
Special breeding programmes focus on aspects such as keeping qualities, colour and taste. “We started getting requests for a different type of cucumber some years ago. Processors wanted a slightly “drier” variety to use in sandwiches. As we all know, sandwiches with slices of cucumber in them often go soggy quite quickly. Ever since then, our breeders have been working on a fruit with a higher dry matter content. And a smaller seed core – the processing company removes this, so the smaller the core, the more flesh they have left over to use. Now that we have finally developed a potentially interesting variety, it’s time to put it to the test in practice: at Zuidgeest in the Dutch village Delfgauw.”
The cucumber grower had already tested the variety on 150 m2 last season. “We used it as an intermediate crop. It was quite difficult and we had trouble getting the crop balanced. It had a lot of foliage and weak fruits. But we realised that we could eliminate many of these problems by steering the crop separately. So this season we gave the small core cucumber a second chance.”
On 21 July 2016, Zuidgeest planted three rows totalling 1,000 m2. This time the crop did a whole lot better. “We harvested the first fruits on about 10 August and the last ones around 1 November. Of course there are differences. Compared with our main variety, this one produces around 15-20% less. But I’m not too worried about that now. At the end of October I picked a row myself and they were lovely, uniform cucumbers.” The diameter and weight of the two varieties is almost the same, the grower says. He aims to pick them at between 350 and 420 grams.
For the time being, Zuidgeest is harvesting the new variety separately. “Every day one of our regular staff members picks around 30 boxes, and we send two pallets off to the customer every two days. Having the same person harvesting these rows helps us supply a consistent size. We don’t sort this variety. We have agreed with the British customer that they will take all sortings. Look, there they are in those green crates.”
The Rijk Zwaan advisor picks up a sample out of a crate and compares it with a standard Lausanna RZ variety fruit. The first thing you notice is that the newcomer has a smooth skin. Otherwise it’s hard to tell the difference – at least until Van Koppen cuts the cucumber in half. Now the smaller core is clearly visible. He also squeezes a piece of the fruit. It produces quite a lot less water than when he does the same with a reference piece.
Only deliver perfect fruits
“Our customer has also seen that the fruit is drier, of course,” the grower says. “They recently sent a delegation over to visit us. You can tell straight away when someone is a trader and not a grower. For instance, I had to explain to them that a cucumber is a natural product and that you can’t simply harvest a specific sorting to order. I think they’d like to leave us a ruler so we only deliver perfect fruits! After all, they have done their calculations: ‘We are making x number of sandwiches, so we need y slices of cucumber and we get z slices out of one fruit, so we need so and so many fruits.’ I do my best, but of course it depends on a variety of factors. Fortunately they went away with a better understanding of how it all works.”
Sandwiches stay fresh for longer
Greencore sandwiches find their way to an average of 45,000 outlets per week across Great Britain alone, such as supermarkets and petrol stations. The sandwiches are sold under their own label. Both Zuidgeest and Van Koppen are looking forward to hearing what the company has to say about the new cucumber. Does this cucumber have a future?
Both the grower and the advisor firmly believe in the added value of this product. But if the customer doesn’t think the higher price is worth paying, it stops here and now. After all, the downside of this variety is its lower production.
Zuidgeest: “The small core cucumber has a lower yield and is more labour-intensive. But if you want to stand out, you have to try something new now and again.” Luckily the customer is also happy with the trial. They report that the quality and specifications are fully in line with their expectations. They are seeing less moisture loss from the product during processing, which is improving the quality of their sandwiches. Larger-scale trials will be carried out over the next few weeks. Van Koppen: “For companies like this, switching to a new type of cucumber doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not a question of weeks but rather months. After the crop, an extensive evaluation will take place.”
All parties benefit
The vegetable breeder is fully aware that the cropping traits of this variety still need work. “Our breeders are working on this at the moment. Variety development is a lengthy process, and with initiatives like this one you still have to contend with the trade-off between the different needs of the parties in the supply chain. The art is creating a range of vegetable varieties that both processors and growers can profit from to the max.”
In this kind of supply chain project, sharing knowledge is extremely important. Most of the contact between the grower and the customer takes place via the breeding company in De Lier. Zuidgeest: “They already have the lines of communication in place and they have special people to handle this. Afterwards, I get to hear from Van Koppen who wants what. It would take up too much of my time and energy to have to deal with that myself. It’s great that we can all work together this way. The breeder responds to current needs with new varieties, I can make my business as a grower stand out by offering a special cucumber, my customer can put sandwiches with added value on the shelves and the end customer gets a more appetising lunch. Here’s hoping this takes off!”
Marco Zuidgeest from Delfgauw grows the small core cucumber specially for the British food processing company Greencore. The characteristics of this fruit meet their needs perfectly. It’s a great example of customer-focused product innovation. To succeed, the project needs good communication between all the parties. With wants and needs being constantly fed back, improvements can be made.
Text: Jojanneke Rodenburg. Images: Leo Duijvestijn.