There has been a lot of innovation and professionalization in global asparagus cultivation in recent years. “Higher yields and net yields per hectare, but also fertilization and foil management are recurring themes,” begins Ton Smolders. As Aspravanza, he independently advises Dutch and overseas growers. He has been doing so, as well as being their sparring partner, for more than a year.
We spoke to Ton shortly after expoSE, which was recently held in Karlsruhe, Germany. It is the first time in two years that this event took place. Among other things, various varieties were presented. “It should actually take five to six years before you can accurately judge a variety. The Cygnus is an example of a relatively young variety with a growing market share. But the Rakete is also promising. It’s an early variety with a high yield and healthy foliage.”
The steady rise of green asparagus enjoyed special attention at expoSE. “There’s structural area expansion. But cultivation in Northwest Europe remains difficult, partly due to the climate. Green asparagus have lower stem weights compared to the white variety. So, more product has to be processed to reach sufficient net kilograms. These are needed to bear the costs. However, in Germany, green asparagus’ direct sales are increasing steadily. That’s because it is fresh and hyper-local,” says Ton.
Mechanization and sales
Also, the asparagus sector is becoming increasingly mechanized. “The current minimum wage in Germany is €11/hour and will rise to €12/hour. That makes harvesting machines an increasingly tempting alternative. I think capacity and operational reliability are decidedly important. However, the machines must actually replace personnel. And they can’t stop working either. There will be no staff left to take care of harvesting. That means products won’t be harvested at all.”
Ton is an expert in, particularly, cultivation methods. But, he also helps growers find suitable market strategies. “More and more growers, especially in Germany, have to choose between direct sales and supplying to wholesalers or retailers. This is a significant, personal decision. Given the current market structures, combining the two branches is becoming increasingly difficult. Things are different in the Netherlands. There, direct sales’ shares are much lower, and always complementary.”
Businesses must gain a strategic market position. “That combines growing asparagus efficiently and marketing it in a suitable market. You must grow the asparagus your specific market demands. Efficient cultivation and making clear choices go hand in hand. These include the variety choice. But also choosing a cultivation system and support measures. And which specific market you want to approach. You must combine crop optimization and taking a strategic position as a company. That offers potential, or correctly put – strategy and agronomy.”
COVID-19 and growth potential
Here, too, COVID-19 is playing on everyone’s minds. Ton says getting enough seasonal workers and harvesters will be a challenge next year as well. That is given Northwest Europe’s 2G regulation. “I advise growers to get organized as early as possible, so there are no surprises. It’s far too late to start calling staffing agencies in February.”
As far as Ton’s concerned, the asparagus sector’s – locally and overseas – future looks bright. That is despite the challenges it faces. “Asparagus is being taken to a higher level internationally. That’s happening everywhere. Now it’s a case of getting on with it and sharing knowledge. And, above all, continuing to talk and, especially, communicate,” he concludes.