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What We Learned on our European Horticulture Travels

I can’t believe we’ve already been to Europe and back already!! Where’s the time gone?! I tried to update the blog while we were away, but wifi was hard to find and often our days didn’t wrap up until late and I was too tired to sit down and write anything.

Delft, Netherlands

To catch you up, a group of Alberta greenhouse growers were invited by Ball Horticultural (and sponsors) to join them on a bus tour and to attend 2 days of a the IPM trade show in Essen, Germany.

Our Alberta crew included Nadine Stielow from Thiel’s Greenhouse (located in Bruderheim), Jason Andersen from Kathy’s Greenhouse (over by Kitscoty), Carmen Sim from Country Gardens and Greenhouses (Ponoka), and me and Tanner from Christie’s Gardens and Greenhouses (from lil’ol High Prairie)!

Our Alberta crew! From L to R: Tanner Pollack, Christie Pollack, Nadine Stielow, Jason Andersen, and Carmen Sim. #AlbertaGrowersGoneWild jackets that we wore all over Europe.

A few of us decided to head over to Europe a bit early so we could tour more greenhouse facilities and operations before heading to Essen and WOW, did we ever have some adventures and see some cool things!!

Our group also kept a diary of events on twitter under the hashtag #eurohorttrip2018 , click on the link to follow along the live tweets.

So here’s a summary of our tour, where we went, what we saw, and what we learned.

Tanner and I flew into the Netherlands on January 15th and headed over to the city of Delft to meet up with Nadine and Jason after their day of tours with Marco De Groot with FloriConsultGroup.

Over the next couple of days, the four of us explored the city of Delft, checked out a working windmill, toured a Dry Hydroponics greenhouse, and toured the new World Horti Center. For more info on those tours, check out my previous blog post here.

The Wind Storm

On January 18th the plan was to leave the Netherlands and take a high speed train over to Belgium so that we could tour BioBest Group Headquarters on the 19th. Well, the weather had different plans for us. The Netherlands happened to experience the worst storm since 1990 with winds gusting over 140km/hour. What that meant was that the entire train system was shut down because there was so much debris on the tracks. Us naive Canadians had no idea a storm even happened! We literally walked from our hotel to the train station not realizing the extent of the damage that had just occurred. I guess looking back the tiles falling off houses, and areas being taped off should’ve been a clue.

So our big dilemma of the day was, how were we going to get from the Netherlands into Belgium? Specifically, we needed to get to the small town of Gierle. We ended up finding a bus that took us from Delft to the Rotterdam train station and we figured we could get on a train from there. NOPE! Apparently no trains were running anywhere in the Netherlands, most of Belgium, and parts of Germany. Oy!

After lots of deliberating, Tanner found a bus line that was running into Antwerp, Belgium. We bought four tickets and hauled our massive ‘Canadian’ sized luggage down the street to wait for the bus. Our group settled into our seats when the bus arrived and hours later we made it to the city of Antwerp. We were finally in Belgium. From there, we taxi’d to our B&B in Gierle, arriving at 7:00pm – seven hours after we started our journey (which should’ve taken about 2 hours).

BioBest Group HQ

Honestly, the BioBest Group headquarters tour was one of the tours I was most looking forward to on our European Hort adventure! I personally love that we use “bugs to fight bad bugs” in our greenhouse and was really looking forward to learning more about the company and how they worked logistically.

BioBest Group HQ From L to R: Jason Andersen, Nadine Stielow, Christie Pollack, and Tanner Pollack

We were all about to get blown away with how freaking awesome this company really is. We were greeted by Fonny Theunis, Sales Manager of BeNeLux & North America and Sam Gui, IPM and Pollination Specialist with a delicious espresso and a great presentation on the history and growth of BioBest and all its divisions around the world.

BioBest originally started with bumble bees for crop pollination. After they mastered the ability to produce bumble bees, they began rearing other advantageous biologicals that could be used in commercial crops (like what we use on our plants in the greenhouse).

The BioBest Group HQ facility was wwwaaayyy bigger then I anticipated and included several labs, research areas, and greenhouses. Our group was granted a tour of some of the labs but were not allowed to take pictures. All I can tell you is that this company has so many checks and balances in place to make sure we’re getting a quality product, it’s unreal! They even make sure to test the flight ability of our little parasitic wasps Aphidius colemani.

From L to R: Jason Andersen, Sam Gui, Fonny Theunis, Tanner Pollack, Christie Pollack, Nadine Stielow

After lunch, Sam (‘Captain Sam’ that is!) took us on a greenhouse tour of a tomato producer and a tour of a popular high end garden center.

Den Berk tomato greenhouse in Belgium. Tomatoes are grown up 16ft wires.
Christie Pollack suited up and disinfected for the Den Berk tomato greenhouse tour in Belgium. The orange glow is from the grow lights.
Nadine Stielow suited up for the tomato tour with BioBest in Belgium. Posing with a Miss Perfect box from Den Berk greenhouses.

‘Ah Ha’ Learning Moment: Most plants in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany are grown, brought to an auction, are bid on and purchased by a distributor, and then sold to customers. This type of marketing is called ‘white label’. As a customer, you don’t really know where your plants were grown. Some companies like Den Berk are now branding their own product.

The next day (Saturday the 20th), our group traveled back to Antwerp, Belgium to meet up with our last missing Alberta grower from our group, Carmen Sim.

From L to R: Jason Andersen, Carmen Sim, Nadine Stielow, and Christie Pollack in the Antwerp train station in Belgium.

We had one night before we were due to meet up with Ball Horticultural in Essen, Germany so Jason planned a surprise for our group; accommodations for the night at a real castle!!

Burg Satzvey (Castle) in Germany

We were treated to an unbelievable supper by international chef Charlie and ‘retired’ to our bedrooms in the castle late in the evening. The next day our group walked around the grounds and enjoyed a few hours of the beauty of Satzvey before getting on the train to make our trip to Essen.

From L to R: Carmen Sim and Nadine Stielow at Burg Satzvey

Essen, Germany with Ball Horticultural

We found our way and arrived in Essen on January 21st at about 2:30pm. That evening we had a meet and greet with Ball Horticultural representatives and the rest of the participants that we were joining on the bus tour.

The #albertagrowersgonewild group with Yves Cournoyer (Sales Director with Ball Horticultural)

Day 1 with Ball Hort

Our day started early with a 7:15 am bus departure so we could fit in all the tours of the day. Our first stop was at the Dümmen Orange greenhouse in Rheinberg. Dümmen Orange is a breeder/developer of plants including annuals, bringing new plants to market for growers and was our sponsor for the day. 

Dümmen Orange new construction for their Elite Library

This particular greenhouse is currently being re-built into a state of the art facility for even better control of Dümmen Orange’s ‘elite library’ (library of plants). Their elite library is protected on a principal called ‘Green Care‘ (click the link for more info).

‘Ah Ha’ Learning Moment: I didn’t realize how large Dümmen Orange is with 18 locations worldwide. What our customers may not realize is that our plants have often traveled the world before we get them and finish growing them for sale. They’re truly international travellers.

Our next stop was Emsflower in Emsbüren. This greenhouse was MASSIVE! and massively automated with robotics. It was amazing to watch how efficient this facility functioned considering the scale of it.

 

 

Emsflowers is 7 million square feet (a quarter section). We walked 1km from the front of the building to the end where they’re still building on more greenhouses. What’s also amazing is that over 90% of the crop they’re growing is already sold. With numbers like that, I’d build a greenhouse this big too!

Emsflower

In the evening, Pan American Seed sponsored a delicious supper at an Italian restaurant.

Day 2 with Ball Hort

Day 2 was filled with garden centre tours starting with a greenhouse in Straeten called Gartenbau Johannes Heekeren. This greenhouse grew a lot of grasses (and really neat varieties) and had an entire outdoor area that it used for greenhouse crop production. 

From L to R: Carmen Sim, Jason Andersen, Christie Pollack, and Nadine Stielow posing with grasses at Gartenbau Johannes Heekeren
Gartenbau Johannes Heekeren

Our next tour was at a Selecta rooting station (Selecta was our sponsor for the day) in Korschenbroich called Gartenbau Christoph Schonges. I loved this greenhouse with its gorgeous rolling bench system and expansive feel. While we were there, workers were busy sticking cuttings by hand. We found the tours on Day 2 not as automated as the first day (but still equally as impressive).

Rolling benches at Gartenbau Christoph Schonges

On our next stop we ventured to Gardencenter Selbach in Leverkusen. This garden center had a more ‘Canadian feel’ then other places and boasted a cafeteria/lunch area. One of the great people we met on the bus, Jason from West Coast Gardens, said that this garden center was more set up like his place in Surrey, BC. It was an interesting visit with the way the facility was designed to move the customer through – in the end, to exit, you have to walk through the entire greenhouse. We had a great lunch and even got to sit with Jim Kennedy, Director of North American Sales with Ball Seed while we ate.

Gardencenter Selbach

 

L to R: Christie Pollack and Jason Andersen at Gardencenter Selbach

After lunch we headed to our last stop of the day called Josef Engels. The head grower gave us a behind the scenes tour of this facility. In production while we were there, were gorgeous pot hydrangeas, and a few other spring crops. They also had an impressive crop of hellebores but had mentioned that their flowering time was off – they should’ve been flowering earlier and now were in full bloom but almost too late for their market. Engels used wood to heat their greenhouse and grew only select annuals. The rest of the annuals they sold, they would purchase from the auction so that they’d have a wide range of plants to sell to their customers. 

Hydrangea baskets at Josef Engels
Hydrangea crop at Gardencenter Josef Engels

That evening, Selecta treated us all to a wonderful supper at Pferdestall – an upscale restaurant in an old horse barn at a coal mine. I was trying to figure out the history of the coal mine but everything was in German and I still can’t read German! It was a double good night because it was also Jason’s birthday. What a cool way to celebrate your birthday (well, I think anyways).

IPM Essen Tradeshow

The next two days were all about the IPM Essen trade show. It’s one (or is) the biggest horticulture/floriculture trade show in Europe and we got to walk a mile in the shoes of a large producer attending this show. All the breeders, greenhouse manufacturers, grow light businesses, packaging companies, tropical producers, a selection of giftware suppliers, and more are all set up and ready to chat. It was inspiring, overwhelming, and jaw dropping all at once. And you know what was super cool? Most had a barista bar set up in their booths making fresh espresso! Heck yeah!

You should see how fast and what you can get accomplished when you caffeinate a bunch of growers! It’s the best idea ever!

We had an opportunity to connect again with the sponsors (Dümmen Orange, Pan American Seeds, and Selecta) from our bus tour with Ball Horticultural and we had a chance to meet Elita Vellekoop from FloralDaily. What we all realized was how this trade show, and the bus tour, allowed us to connect with all these fabulous people. It truly was a once in a lifetime experience.

IPM Essen Trade Show

 

Tanner Pollack’s clever caption of the #Albertagrowersgonewild group

And for our last day, we headed back to Amsterdam where we all flew out together on January 28th.

Our last night in Amsterdam. From L to R: Tanner Pollack, Christie Pollack, Nadine Stielow, Jason Andersen, and Carmen Sim

Big Takeaways:

Europe has a population that can sustain large facilities like the ones we toured. The Netherlands has a population of 17.02 million, Belgium’s population is 11.35 million, and Germany’s population is 82.67 million. The distance to travel between Amsterdam, Netherlands to Essen, Germany is only 210km. Our total population in Canada is just over 36 million people over a span of 5300km!!* What I realized is that Europe has such a small distance to reach a much bigger market. They have their struggles too, we learned that over 80% of rose greenhouses in the Netherlands have changed crops because roses can be produced much cheaper in Africa.

We also learned that many growers struggle with marketing their product. Most are familiar with growing it, and bringing it to an auction to sell. They don’t get to have that interaction with their end customers like we do with our garden center.

I feel like it’s a privilege that we get to grow and sell our own plants. Not only do we get our hands in the dirt, but we get to chat with you, our customers and find out what you love best.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this post and I look forward to revealing more of what we learned over the next few months!

I just want to say a special thank you to Ball Horticultural for inviting us on the amazing tour in Germany. We owe our Ball rep Geoff Wood a HUGE thank you and Yves Cournoyer, Regional Sales Director a HUGE merci for hosting us, and more importantly believing in what we do. We personally came back energized and with eyes wide open ready to grow. The best part? We’re just beginning.

 

*data from google maps (population and distance)

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