Eventful year lies ahead for Schneider

Author: Ron van der Ploeg

2019 promises to be a very important year for young plant producer Schneider. Not only will ISO’s automated cutting sticker make its first appearance at the company, but Schneider also plans to relocate to more suitable premises as part a lengthy, compulsory purchase order process which is nearing its final stage. In addition to these important steps, Schneider will be setting up its own cutting production in Africa by teaming up with a local partner.

Schneider has deep roots in the horticulture sector and runs a 3.5 ha young plant business in Ridderkerk, 10 km south of Rotterdam. The company is currently co-owned by 46-year old, third generation Jacob Schneider whose grandfather grew vegetables for the local community.

The family ties and personal touch are still important today. “Everyone tells boastful stories when it comes to customer service. We prefer to keep things simple and make it personal.”

Jacob’s father, Lody, decided to specialise in ornamental plants in 1966. “Between 1970 until 1985 he produced almost all of Hamer’s young plants. In 1985, however, Hamer and Schneider dissolved when Hamer launched its own young plant production. We have a shared history and strong ties, though for the previous generations the relationship was tense and pragmatic at times.”

 

Jacob Schneider.

 

Interconnectivity

Schneider believes, however, that one should never look at business relationships in terms of extremes. To some extent the market is a pretty transparent one: everyone knows what’s out there, who the major players are, what has worked and what has not worked. In such a business environment it is important to strike the right balance between competition and cooperation. Digital disruption in young plant production will continue to shake things up and Jacob stresses that the industry as a whole will benefit the most by working closely together. “We really need to think about how to improve our interconnectivity. At present, customers purchase relatively small quantities from different suppliers: one batch of Gediflora pot mums here, a trolley of Brandkamp Fuchsias there, 20 trays of Florensis from another place. In an ideal world all plants would be brought together and combined. Such an interconnected system based on groupage deliveries, reliable track and tracing and jointly agreed distribution fees would not only provide customers across Europe with a one-stop shop for young plants, it would also significantly reduce the number of transport movements.”

Production

In Schneider’s greenhouses, the growing season is practically year-round with the usual peak in Spring and maintenance integrated into the Winter schedule.

Marking the beginning of the season in December are Begonia semperflorens for Turkey and Viola for the Russian market. The greenhouses are never completely empty. “We start with the slower growing crops and, simply, what customers have ordered. Production schedules are based on setting up one colour per week. Thus, no customer- or country-driven production. In week 4, we kick off with the big five in seed-raised bedding plants, moving from warmer to cooler zones, trays are labelled, it is decided whether vermiculite needs to be added and, depending on weather conditions, crops can be covered with white or transparent sheeting. To accomplish this, we rely on a team of growers with over 30 years of experience,” explains Schneider.

The plant propagator from Ridderkerk produces 200 million seed-raised and 12 million cutting-raised young plants from almost 1000 different genera, resulting in something of an imbalance that harkens back to the past when we only grew seed-raised plants. One of the company’s future ambitions is to bolster its position in cutting production.

Ethical compass

In times of consolidation in global ornamental horticulture, slowly but steadily dominated by a few major players, Schneider decided to ‘map’ his competitive position and travelled to Africa to visit three cutting farms. Working rights, working conditions and quality standards differed between farms, ranging from well-organised companies running foundations to ensure the well-being of their workers, to farms with workers doing physically taxing work close to the ground and poor product quality. Jacob, “Doing business in Africa offers the opportunity to reset your ethical compass and invites you to answer tough questions in business practice. Who are we and what do we stand for?”

Besides the ethical issues, it’s also about understanding cost and profit. “Considering our annual output it would seem more sensible to team up with an already existing cutting farm instead of setting up a wholly-owned cutting farm. Our customers who are 500 km or even further away find it a hassle to source their starting plants from two or three different countries. In these countries we would be able to differentiate themselves even more by providing the total package.”

 

What is now a vast expanse of greenhouses will transform into a business park hosting a range of fresh fruit and vegetable suppliers.

 

Value proposition

Contrary to common assumption, being a plant distributor in the age of the internet and overnight shipping can still be a strong value proposition. Schneider explains,  “From the breeder’s perspective, a young plant producer enables to build the brand names of their genetics. Moreover, by working with a company such as Schneider breeders are pretty much assured of large scale introduction of their seed-raised products onto the market. If the same breeder decided to sell directly to the end grower, there’s the risk we would stop buying their genetics. It’s a sort of gentleman’s agreement not to do so. From the end grower’s perspective, our unique selling point is our independency and product knowledge. We run test plantings of all new varieties, of all breeding companies,  growing them side by side with existing varieties and giving them the same treatment. If we point to a specific Petunia as being an excellent performer customers he relies on us and makes us in some way accountable for that. What’s more, growers are not really waiting for each and every sales rep of breeding companies to enter their greenhouses to tell them how good their new Petunia is. No single sales rep will admit that the competitor offers a better choice.”

Exclusivity or not

Schneider is Ambassador Begonia, Sunsation Helianthus, Lupo Petunias, Santa Cruz Begonias, Divine Dianthus and Petchoa Beauticals, but it’s not exclusively any one of these things. Their portfolio comprises products from all breeders.

Schneider has never needed any exclusivity to stand the test of time with freedom in selecting the best genetics. However, breeders can claim specific series exclusively for themselves. “Take Syngenta’s Delta Series. The decision to do this was made by Syngenta to help Floripro, the company’s distribution organisation. Considering the marketing muscle behind Delta, it makes their decision even easier to understand. Delta is really a prime example of clever marketing with growers, and in some cases, even garden retailers made to believe they’re buying superior genetics. Personally, I think the lines in ornamental breeding risk being blurred. One of the brain childs behind Syngenta’s Viola breeding is now working at Benary’s, for example.”

As sustainable as possible

MPS-A certified, neonicotinoid-free Schneider Young Plants grows its young plants as sustainably as possible. The plant nursery reuses and recycles trays at every opportunity. A mobile bench system allows more efficient plant irrigation, efficient handling of different group of plants with different growing conditions and better control over the crop quality. Sticky cards are up and monitored on a weekly basis and are part of a wider integrated pest management programme.

Schneider says there is no doubt that setting sustainable development goals will strengthen the environment for doing business and building markets across Europe. However, he would welcome a more balanced debate. “The sustainable intensification of young plants is already achieved through a high-density growing system encompassing hundreds of plants per m2. The environmental benefits are bigger when I give the plants the right treatment on the spot.”

Meanwhile, diminishing crop protection product options is a reality the entire industry should accept, he says. “To some extent I am happy that we all have to play by the same set of rules, based on the idea of a level playing field where every young plant producer in Europe has the same opportunities.”

 

Schneider’s managent team left to right Anton Hooijmeijer, Jan de Hartog, Gerrit Stam, Jacob Schneider and Arend Reijm.

 

Quality

Keeping an eagle eye on quality has helped the Schneider company be successful.

Only the best genetics are good enough, stresses Schneider. “It is simply impossible to tell your customers that plants have not germinated well and to come back in two weeks. We prefer to work with the BMWs and Mercedes in young plants only.”

According to Schneider quality is providing plant according to customer specifications and for the right price. “The art of growing is to provide consistent, high quality regardless of climatic conditions. Again, roll benches are unmissable as they allow us to move batches over different temperature zones. Contrary to ebb and flood floors, we can move a few thousand trays from one zone to another rather quickly.”

The Schneiders are specialists. This means that plant propagation is all they do. “A few years ago we asked our partners what they thought about Schneider setting up its own breeding programme. They clearly advised us to stick to our roots and to concentrate on things we do best. Own breeding is often fuelled by fear of being excluded from novelties. Partly this fear can be justified. On the other hand, when you start your own breeding programme you might represent a potential danger for long existing breeding companies.”

Partners

Schneider sells its plants through a network of long-time partners across Europe. Products are shipped to the partner’s premises who, in turn, continues to sub-distribute to his own clients. “In some cases we can sell directly to a customer in a specific country on a commission basis for the partner. It might seem easier to do so but one should know the market inside out and the financial risks involved in selling directly to smaller local customers. As such, we find great value in our partner network.”

The market for young plants is still dynamic, mostly fuelled by a rise in local production, ensures Schneider. “Take Russia. There’s been a quick professionalisation of growers. In the old days, they bought seeds and achieved germination rates not higher than 30 to 40% forcing them to buy additional plants on the auction market in the Netherlands. At present, they buy their Petunia young plants from us with a 100% success in growth. There definitely is growth, but mostly thanks to expansion of more distant production areas.”

Meeting growers of different nationalities has enrichened his life, says Schneider. It might have something to do with his family’s origin. “The Schneider family name makes clear that we have no Dutch ancestry. Actually, when looking into our family’s history we were able to go back fourteen generations and ended up in Poland. “Interestingly, wherever you travel around the world almost all growers are hardworking, trustworthy people. Generally speaking, if people are really out to swindle they prefer selling second hand cars instead of growing plants.”

When pointed out that this sounds too good to be true when considering the amount of fraud with plant royalties, Schneider says, “You’re right in saying that in emerging markets there is still a lot of illegal production. Yes, that’s partly also my responsibility because I work with local dealers who sell premium products that help growers to differentiate themselves in the market and achieve a higher price. What’s more, illegal propagation and poor hygienic conditions usually go hand in hand. Eventually our plants might end up in greenhouses being exposed to higher risks of all kinds of pests and diseases. The only thing we can do is to encourage RAI to undertake more actions. The problem is that national governments support UPOV regulation but in ornamental plants they hardly consider it a priority. You know what happens: we do our utmost to deliver the most compact, uniform young plant to customers asking for more stretchy plants so they can propagate themselves.”

Automation

Speaking of history, the recently-acquired automated cutting stickers from ISO are already making history. “Initially I was reluctant to embrace robotics and still am as planting speed is still too low and individual recognition of less standardised cuttings might be a challenge. A Chrysanthemum cutting might work easily but what about curved Surfinia cuttings sticking together? However, robotics is the only viable solution as the industry will continue to face huge labour shortages. Depending on the amount of labour we can save, we expect to have the system pay for itself within three to five years.”

All this doesn’t mean that Schneider has taken the decision to automise the cutting stick process lightly. “It’s partly filled with ambiguity as the Schneider team really feels like a family. Yes, I think the entire cutting stick process will be taken over by robots. However, the good thing is that 50% of cutting production will return to Ridderkerk this year with the other half done at Ammerlaan’s in Bleiswijk.”

Relocation

Schneider is quick to add that this situation is only temporary as the company finds itself in the final stages of a lengthy, compulsory purchase order process. “What is now a vast expanse of greenhouses will transform into a business park hosting a range of fresh fruit and vegetable suppliers. We’re allowed to continue production until 2020. By 2021 we will leave Ridderkerk, for an as yet unknown destination.”

Schneider wished it was just a question of turning dreams into reality. “My wish would be to build a completely new, state-of-the art company. But having weighed my options, I believe I should act on the best one. That is to continue and expand cooperation with vegetable transplants producers such as Ammerlaan from Bleiswijk from which we already rent 3.5 ha of greenhouses. Does one really need fancy, wholly owned headquarters?”

Other factors are at stake. “I am one of the co-owners, so one of the options is a buy out of the other shareholders. The question is what to do best? Life presents you with so many decisions. Psalm 119 tells us that God’s word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path, not a spotlight in the far background, but a lamp in front of your feet providing enough light to take the next  step. That’s a very nice thought for the future.”

 

ISO’s automated cutting stickers.