Limgroup B.V.
Pioneers of F1 Hybrid Strawberries: Van den Elzen Plants

Pioneers of F1 Hybrid Strawberries: Van den Elzen Plants

In this latest issue of the Pioneers of F1 Hybrid Strawberries series, we once again highlight a key partner in making this transition happen. In this article, Maurice Deben, Commercial Director, and Renske Arnts, Account Manager at Van den Elzen Plants talk about their role in the process and their vision for the future of F1 Hybrid Strawberries.

In this article, you will read:

  • Why Maurice Deben sees F1 Hybrid Strawberries as a key development in the Champions League of the strawberry world
  • How Limore can challenge the existing market of everbearers
  • How plant breeders can respond more flexibly to market demand with F1 Hybrid Strawberries

Van den Elzen Plants is a leading plant propagator, formed two years ago from a merger of Het Broek Softfruit and Van den Elzen plant propagators. In one fell swoop, the Erp-based company became one of the largest propagators of soft fruit plants in Europe. Van den Elzen produces asparagus, raspberry, and blackberry plants, but its main focus is growing strawberry plants.

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“Strawberries are indeed our biggest business,” explains Maurice Deben, commercial director of Van den Elzen. “We focus on high-quality substrate crops, producing tray plants of all shapes and sizes.” The company holds licences from the leading breeders on the market and has a wide range of varieties. So until now, Van den Elzen propagated these varieties only clonally. “For all the varieties we grow, we propagate the parent material in our advanced high health facilities. These are specially adapted for mother material production,” Maurice further explains.

Competing at the top
“In that respect, the transition to F1 Hybrid Strawberries represents a culture shock for us as a company. We currently focus on the production and propagation of mother material, but with strawberries from seed, this process becomes effectively redundant. Although this means a radical change for us, we are open to this innovation. By being actively involved in this development, we stay ahead and can anticipate changes within the sector,” says Maurice. “Strawberries from seed is an important development within the Champions League of the strawberry sector. As a leading company, we simply have to be part of that. That is why cooperation with leading breeding companies is crucial. Breeders determine the future of the sector with their genetics. Good genetics contribute to disease resistance, flavour improvement and the adaptation of strawberries to different climates. For us, it is essential to maintain strong relationships with partners such as Limgroup and other market leaders in breeding in order to provide our customers with the best genetics.”

"F1 Hybrid Strawberries represent a significant development in the Champions League of the strawberry world. As a company, we are eager to participate."

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Responding flexibly to market demand
Renske Arnts, Account Manager, explains how the introduction of F1 Hybrid Strawberries will radically change Van den Elzen Plants' propagation process. “Traditionally, our propagation process takes three to four years. We start with pre-basic material, propagate it to BM1, and let it grow to BM2 the following year. In the third year, the BM2 plants are replanted to produce runners, which we supply to customers or use for tray plants sold the fourth year. With the arrival of F1 Hybrid Strawberries, this process changes significantly. Within just 16 to 20 weeks after sowing, we already have a marketable plant. This offers us much more flexibility,” stresses Renske. “Under our current way of working, customers who want to change varieties have to indicate this one to two years in advance. We therefore have to constantly estimate how many plants our customers will need the following year, and we already have to take this into account when ordering mother material. This requires very in-depth knowledge of the market. Strawberries from seed allow us to make decisions about varieties and quantities much later in the process, which helps us respond quickly and effectively to customer needs.”

“Another important aspect is that seed is by definition disease-free, so we are going to need less crop protection in the process,” adds Maurice. “In light of the Green Deal in Europe, we are expected to get by with significantly less crop protection. F1 Hybrid Strawberries can play an important role in that, because the process is less stressful per plant. I remain healthily critical, though, because all the warm propagation departments required will increase CO2 emissions in other places, we have to be aware of that.”

“Strawberries from seed allow us to make decisions on varieties and quantities much later in the process, which helps us respond quickly and effectively to customer needs.”

Potential in the market
Despite the advantages mentioned, Maurice says one aspect will be the deciding factor in the market: “at the end of the day, it's about the fruit the plant produces. Limore is an everbearer, so people will start comparing it with other everbearers. The performance should therefore be at least equal to that of existing varieties. In fact, the market will then not care whether it is a clonal or hybrid variety. Based on what I have seen in trials in recent years, I am very impressed. The strawberries are tasty, look attractive and the plants grow compact, firm and strong. Therefore, I am convinced that Limore can very well compete in the market.” Maurice picks up a mini-tray, containing hybrid strawberry plants. “Put these next to a tray of a clonal plant, you can hardly see any difference. This convinces me that strawberries from seed could capture a significant market share. Whether they will ever become the standard is hard to say. Big changes can happen quickly, but we will undoubtedly face challenges. The main question is how quickly Limgroup can optimise parental lines, as this will allow new varieties to be brought to market quickly to match demand.”

“The fact that all major breeders worldwide have started developing strawberries from seed does indicate that there is a lot of potential,” Renske adds. “This is also beneficial for Limgroup. If the very largest companies in the world jump on this, the whole sector will benefit. The presence of several big players is crucial to innovate together and learn from each other. It remains a pipe dream, but I do think it could take over a significant part of the market. In my working area, the Netherlands, southern Germany, Austria, Switzerland and northern Italy, people are interested. We get a lot of enquiries from growers who want to test the plant material. It is clear that a shift is taking place in the market.”

Looking to the future 
“The future will have to tell how this transition develops,” says Maurice. “You have to start with one variety, but eventually there will have to be a complete variety package. Still, I think it was a good choice to start with this; it's a kilo carrier, for which there is a lot of demand at the moment and towards the future, also within clonal cultivation. In the future, June bearers will continue to play an important role, as they still allow you to plan large volumes better. This often proves more difficult with everbearers, but since Limore is raised from seed, it should also give a consistent harvest profile. Challenges will also vary in different growing regions and climate zones, as the needs of markets outside the Netherlands differ greatly. There are many aspects that are going to influence success.”

Maurice and Renske are confident in Limgroup's approach. “They just handle this introduction very strongly. By working with companies that bring their own specialisms, we all benefit from each other's expertise and learn from each other. It is also valuable that the market is connected, with players like FruitMasters, giving us direct feedback on how these strawberries are being received by consumers. This gives us insight into market reactions and how the product is positioned. Limgroup is introducing this transition gradually. Indeed, wanting to go too fast carries risks; it is better to carefully observe the market reaction and then proceed gradually. There are bound to be setbacks, but that is inherent in introducing an innovation. We are especially happy and proud to be closely involved in the process, it will be very interesting to see how this transition develops in the coming years.”

“By collaborating with companies that bring in their own specialisms, we all benefit from each other's expertise and learn from each other.”