RedStar starts a pilot with robots to analyse plant welfare

By: Redactie 10 Dec, 2018

Back in the day, RedStar started by growing lettuce under glass. The company has since grown into a total specialist in the field of high-quality, tasty tomatoes, and operates in all links of the chain. To maintain its leading position in the market, RedStar works with food companies and educational establishments in association with Rotterdam Food Cluster. Via its own innovation group, RedStar collaborates with TU Delft and RoboValley, amongst others, to formulate and effectuate innovation projects. In this interview, Patrick van der Kaaij, General Manager Tuinen (Gardens) Voorne-Putten at RedStar and Steven Timmers, Manager Bedrijfsbureau (Planning and Control) at RedStar, tell us about the pilot and how they work with others to position the company in the horticulture sector.

The pilot starts with smart cameras

An innovation group was founded within RedStar, to be able to formulate and effectuate innovation projects. ‘Our aim, with this innovation group that consists of folks from the cultivation, ICT and logistics departments, is to develop innovation projects from different perspectives. Therefore, in collaboration with TU Delft and RoboValley, we started several studies. We’ll soon be starting a pilot with a startup in the field of robotics. We’ll be using smart cameras to analyse plants, so we’ll be able to see when a plant is not doing so well or has specific deviations. These cameras will pinpoint which section we need to take a closer look at,’ explains Timmers.
Perhaps, this type of study can solve the problem that Van der Kaaij identified. ‘It would be great if we could get machines to do the strenuous physical work for us. Right now, the machines are still too underdeveloped for this to happen. Every tomato hangs from the plant in a slightly different way, requiring a different approach. Knowledge expansion is required for both the technicians and the actual technology before this process can be automated’, explains Van der Kaaij.

‘The intelligent folks who aren't active in the horticulture industry look at the sector from a very different perspective. They can help us.’

Steven Timmers Manager Bedrijfsbureau (Planning and Control) at RedStar

Intelligent folks from outside the sector help us

RedStar faces a major challenge in getting flex workers committed to the company. ‘Most flex workers only stay with us for a short while. It would be nice if we could keep them here for longer. We hope to achieve this by providing enough hours, bonuses, gifts, year-round work, a permanent contract and sufficient opportunities for advancement’, says Van der Kaaij.
A great example, according to Timmers: ‘Several employees started out as greenhouse workers, and are currently doing foreman training. The location manager oversees the foreman training, in a step-by-step process.’ Nowadays, these types of training programmes are quite abundant at RedStar. Timmers: ‘A few years ago, we were still looking for people with five years of experience in the horticulture sector. Unfortunately, our search always ended with too few candidates, so we decided to train the employees ourselves. This way, we also attracted employees from outside the horticulture sector. In addition, we offer different traineeships for positions like sales- and cultivation specialist. This is particularly interesting for people with no past experience in the sector but posses a passion for horticulture. The intelligent folks who aren’t active in the horticulture industry look at the sector from a very different perspective. They can help us.’

RedStar kas

Markt Match helps to secure a more prominent position for the horticulture sector

Steven Timmers explains why it’s so important to secure a position for the horticulture sector in the Netherlands. ‘The horticulture sector receives much more recognition abroad than in our own country. Here, folks still think all we do is pick tomatoes. However, the process is fairly technical.’ RedStar collaborated with other established Rotterdam Food Cluster companies at the Markt Match two-day student event, to secure a more prominent position for the sector amongst the new generation. During the event, two hundred undergraduate (senior secondary education, higher vocational education and university education) students worked on challenges from and with world players in the regional food sector, related to plant-based diets, food wastage and the recruitment of (young) talent.

Timmers continues: ‘Our aim in taking part in Markt Match was to secure a more prominent position amongst students and schools in the Rotterdam region. Many of the schools still know very little about us. Some of the schools also don’t see the link to the horticulture sector. However, educational programmes that aren’t specifically food-related, like communications and economics, can also land you in the horticulture sector. Take me, for example. I studied logistics and economics and ended up at RedStar through my traineeship. Here, my enthusiasm for the horticulture sector took off.’

Interesting blockchain innovations

Timmers is enthusiastic about the results of Markt Match and shares his personal favourites with us: ‘The groups came up with a few blockchain innovations, which I found very interesting. I think such innovations really hold a future for the horticulture sector. Also, the idea of turning (surplus) vegetables into powder intrigues me, because consumers have less and less time and the idea focuses on the convenience aspect.’ The results of Markt Match are promising, according to Timmers. ‘A survey of the 200 students in attendance reveals that 50% are considering a career in the horticulture sector and 16% answer ”yes” wholeheartedly. Now, it’s important for us to give some thought to the Markt Match sequel. We’ve planted a seed. Now, we must continue our collaboration so we can distinguish our sector.’ According to Van der Kaaij, we should also be collaborating with producer groups and retail organisations, in addition to the labour market parties.

RedStar Steven Timmers presentatie
Steven Timmers, Manager Bedrijfsbureau (Planning and Control) at RedStar, inspires students at Markt Match with his story about working in the horticulture sector.

The horticulture sector is the answer to the growing food problem

Timmers believes they should advocate and represent the sector, not only as RedStar but as the entire food cluster. ‘Collaborating within the Rotterdam Food Cluster and organising events like Markt Match are crucial if we want to maintain our number one position. Therefore, we’d like to arrange a sequel to this event. By working together, we can do a better job of promoting the sector. To be specific, this could lead to things like common packaging solutions and shared traineeships. We don’t mind if the trainee chooses us once, and chooses a different fruit and vegetable company the next time. It’s about what’s best for the sector. The horticulture sector is the answer to different food-related issues like the growing food problem and the world’s growing population. As a sector, we must believe in this, and we must convey the message.’

Sustainable packaging could set the pricing

RedStar sets itself apart by cultivating in a client-oriented fashion, by using sustainable packaging solutions for its tomatoes, and by continuously innovating at a product level. Patrick van der Kaaij says that the competition in the horticulture sector continues to grow. ‘Our biggest challenge is to charge the cost price through to the client. The well-known peaks and troughs in our sector are at the root of this. More and more tomatoes are available on the market since the production per square metre increases and all colleagues, RedStar included, expand production after a good year.’ Despite this, RedStar manages to distinguish itself. We continue to perform taste tests at a product level and continuously develop new types. ‘In addition, we want to focus on sustainable packaging. It would be great if the supermarkets worked with us on this, and we could agree on one type of packaging that would determine the price’, says Van der Kaaij. ‘We’d also love to work with other companies on this, so we could, for example, package different types of vegetables jointly. This way, we could add value instead of just putting a tomato into a container’, Timmers adds.

Click here for more information about RedStar.

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