With open-field and greenhouse cultivation in two locations in the Netherlands, Piet van Vugt is committed to sustainability and minimizing food miles. "In the winter, we get some herbs and baby leaf from Spain, Italy, Kenya, and Morocco, but we can offer locally-grown edible flowers year-round," begins Van Vugt Kruiden's founder and CEO.
Piet van Vugt
Reducing cultivation, processing, and supply chain CO2 emissions is high on this family business agenda. Thanks to 3,400 solar panels, (residual) heat storage in buffer tanks, and electric boilers, the herb grower operates gas-free and 100% emission-free. "We also have a closed water system, so don't waste a drop. It's all sterilized and reused."
In the Netherlands, you can grow herbs outside in the full soil for five months. "That's as sustainable as it gets. In winter, southern European countries offer a solution. The only big emissions item then is transport, but I see trucks becoming fully electric within a decade," says Piet.
Cultivation in the south is a must for Van Vugt Kruiden's business model. The company wants to supply hospitality and retail customers in the Netherlands and surrounding countries with herbs, edible flowers, and baby leaf products at stable quality and prices year-round. "There have always been herbs from low-wage countries. But it's not an item like, say, tomatoes, for example, which are plentiful and you can get from anyone at day prices. Some customers buy from us six days a week, all year round. But then you have to have the whole range on hand. Hospitality clients must be able to buy a single bag of marjoram and one tray of flowers, along with their dill and mint."
Edible flowers still have plenty of potential, says the grower. "Provide continuity and buyers grow alongside your company. Continuity's tricky, but it lets you create a growth market and promotes customer loyalty. We have lasting relationships with 95% of our customers, which makes long-term planning easier and keeps the workload constant for our 300 employees. Except at Easter and Christmas; then it's crazy," Piet explains.
Should a client want a new product, the grower gladly expands, for instance, his herb range to accommodate that. For now, though, Van Vugt refuses to give in to the market demand for paper packaging. "We deliberately don't package our herbs in paper. Choosing paper is based on emotion. Considering all aspects, it's no more environmentally friendly than the recycled, recyclable, thin mono-material PET we use. That certainly cost us some buyers, but some have already returned. Plastic is getting thinner and thinner, easily saving some kilos annually."
It is a different story with new herbs or flowers, though. "Introducing new products means you're listening to the market. We like doing that. Chefs visit our experimental garden, although I must admit, the truly unique products have little chance of becoming a big item. There are, for example, several mint varieties, but, ultimately, most customers choose the standard green mint, which adds some flavor to a glass of water," Piet continues.
Yet, some products are gaining good ground. "For instance, with sorrel, we started with a kilogram or two a week; now, it has a prominent place in our range. A small product holding its own also depends somewhat on which buyers request it. Red basil, which we grow in our Dutch greenhouse, is always available. The rule is the product's for sale as long as there's demand. And besides, it's my hobby. I grow far more than I'll ever sell, but I love it," concludes the professional grower. Or should we say hobby grower?