Avebe

Avebe is a cooperative of starch-potato growers focused on the market. Traditionally we only focused on extracting starch from potatoes. However, by developing innovative methods we now also extract proteins from potatoes that are intended for the food industry. But there is more…. To us a potato is a source of opportunities with even more ingredients that can be turned into value. In other words, if it’s in there, we’ll extract it!

YOUNG AND OLD
GROWERS

Three generations of Bouwers, together in the starch potato field in Zuidwolde. They look out over the potato furrows, take a closer look at the foliage and discuss what they see. Later, at  Egbert Bouwers’ kitchen table they talk about the growing process and the company over the years. Talking together about the past isn’t something they do every day, but for Avebe they make an exception. And Luuk and Iris listen with amazement to the stories of the first generation.

From KSH to Avebe
Egbert Bouwers was the first generation of Bouwers to grow and sell starch potatoes. He chose starch potatoes for a reason: ‘Potatoes grown in sandy soil are more vulnerable than clay. And growing seed potatoes takes a lot of work. It also involves greater cultivation risks. With starch potatoes, I had a more stable payment and purchase agreement’, says Egbert. ‘At that time, I delivered my 14 hectares of starch potatoes to Koninklijke Scholten-Honig (KSH). But KSH was discontinued in the 1970s. Avebe took over the starch branch of KSH and I got a good offer. I bought in at Avebe for 30,000 guilders. We went from being a private starch factory to being members of a large cooperative.’

‘From private to cooperative, that must have been a big change, right?’, Luuk asks his father. But, according to Egbert, not much has changed: ‘We started delivering our potatoes again. We were left empty-handed when KSH stopped. That hasn’t happened to us so far with Avebe.’ As a member of the cooperative, Egbert was a co-owner of the company. Iris wonders if he felt responsible as a member. ‘As long as the potatoes were paid for and the price was right, I didn’t get involved with the ins and outs of the cooperative,’ he answers.

Certainty
Egbert: ‘Avebe has been very important to me. It was the most profitable crop I had and Avebe gave me security of sale.’ And it’s still true today, says Luuk: ‘A large part of our turnover comes in through Avebe’. Iris adds: ‘And starch potatoes take up a large part of our acreage, about 60%. It’s our most important crop, but not the most profitable’. The Bouwers have made the conscious decision to grow starch potatoes as the basis of the farm. Luuk: ‘On sandy soil you have less freedom to choose a crop, we also have a lot of weeds to contend with. Avebe provides us with the certainty we need to cover part of the business risk. It’s nice to know that you have a reliable customer who pays out stably. Even in times of disappointing quality and results.’

LEFT TO RIGHT: LUUK, IRIS AND EGBERT BOUWERS

Luuk and his wife Truus Bouwers took over the arable and pig farm from Egbert and his wife Lammie. Iris went into partnership with her parents in 2016. All generations are involved in the company. The arable farming operation is 120 hectares in size and the farming plan includes 72 hectares of starch potatoes, 5 hectares of onions, 5 hectares of valerian, 8 hectares of
sugar beet, 8 hectares of gluten-free oats, supplemented with malting barley. The Bouwers family keeps pigs in a 1-star ‘Better Life’ sty. Egbert occasionally still helps out on the farm, Luuk works every day and in addition to her work on the farm, Iris works as a lobbyist for the Agriculture and Horticulture Organisation Netherlands (LTO) in Brussels.

THE FARM
ABOUT

‘In my early years there were problems at Avebe, right up to abolition of the European subsidies. That was the turning point,’ Luuk recalls. Iris explains: ‘Starch cultivation was traditionally strongly subsidised by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). A part of the money went to Avebe at the time and a part to the growers. This changed after the abolition of subsidies. The European starch subsidy was then paid directly to growers. This component has now been virtually eliminated and the starch potato grower also receives a regular hectare subsidy. Avebe began to think in a more market-oriented way because they knew that the suppliers, with the subsidy they received directly, could also choose alternative crops.

The customers of Avebe’s products were willing to pay a higher price; they realised that Avebe had to reward its growers in such a way as to secure the supply of raw materials. ‘In recent years, we’ve been able to benefit greatly from CAP policy.’ Luuk is concerned about the future of the CAP: ‘How much public support will remain? Payment from the CAP is likely to change after 2020. Anticipating this will be quite a challenge.’ Especially when starch potato cultivation has to be cleaner, Iris wonders how this will be paid out. ‘We’d like to produce more sustainably and cleanly, but our product is a bulk product that isn’t immediately visible to the consumer. A cleaner or different production method doesn’t necessarily add value. If the requirements change, our costs will also increase. The risk lies with the grower and that effort should also
be rewarded,’ says Iris.

End of subsidies

‘We didn’t have those challenges before,’ Egbert says. ‘The world and society are changing. When people become better off, they start focusing more on these issues.’ Another challenge that Luuk foresees is access to land and associated land prices. ‘When my father started out, we were growing potatoes for a number of years and the soil paid for itself in those days. Physical yields have barely gone up, but cultivation and soil costs have risen sharply. In spite of the low interest rates, the land for the cultivation of starch potatoes is almost impossible to finance.’ This is also a major problem in the case of company takeovers, Iris explains. ‘Where many young farmers opt for a more efficient production method and a matching earning model, this is difficult for the starch potatoes. More intensive cultivation is not an option, we already grow very intensively. We only benefit from a growing year with optimal weather conditions and minimal disease. It is and remains an open crop, so you’re always dependent on the weather conditions.’

Challenges

‘Over the years, the cultivation of starch potatoes has become highly mechanised. There hasn’t been much progress with the yield,’ says Luuk. ‘But a lot of work has been done to build in resistance in starch potato varieties. This has been important to ensure the industry’s supply of raw materials.’ The throughput of varieties is now faster, Egbert notes. ‘We used to have one variety over a long period of time, but now there is a whole new variety package every ten years. Our first variety was the “Volare”. Later we had the “Mentor” for a long time. But that was vulnerable to the potato disease phytophthora.’ The use of crop protection products has also changed over the years, of course. Not only the frequency but also the working method. ‘Combating phytophthora was one of the biggest challenges for me,’ says the first generation of Bouwers. ‘Things were very unclear, so I just did it my way. I sometimes even waited another day with spraying to save money, that’s just how I was. In the beginning, the agricultural contractor even went over the acreage on horseback. Only later did we invest in a sprayer ourselves.’ The work also used to be physically harder, Egbert recalls: ‘We used to harvest the potatoes by hand. We transported them by flat trailer to the farm and then shovelled about seven tons of potatoes into the truck.’ Major changes have also been made to the crop registration system. ‘Records? There was really no need for them. The forerunner of the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO) came to carry out random checks. The rest was all in my head,’ says Egbert. According to Iris, Luuk still has all the necessary knowledge at hand. ‘I do it mainly for the inspection authorities and to compare our results with those of other growers.’ ‘Still, I think we can do even more with it in the future,’ says Iris. ‘We’ll see,’ concludes Egbert. ‘There’s nothing harder than predicting the future.’

Changes over the years

Three generations of Bouwers, together in the starch potato field in Zuidwolde. They look out over the potato furrows, take a closer look at the foliage and discuss what they see. Later, at  Egbert Bouwers’ kitchen table they talk about the growing process and the company over the years. Talking together about the past isn’t something they do every day, but for Avebe they make an exception. And Luuk and Iris listen with amazement to the stories of the first generation.

LEFT TO RIGHT: LUUK, IRIS AND EGBERT BOUWERS

From KSH to Avebe
Egbert Bouwers was the first generation of Bouwers to grow and sell starch potatoes. He chose starch potatoes for a reason: ‘Potatoes grown in sandy soil are more vulnerable than clay. And growing seed potatoes takes a lot of work. It also involves greater cultivation risks. With starch potatoes, I had a more stable payment and purchase agreement’, says Egbert. ‘At that time, I delivered my 14 hectares of starch potatoes to Koninklijke Scholten-Honig (KSH). But KSH was discontinued in the 1970s. Avebe took over the starch branch of KSH and I got a good offer. I bought in at Avebe for 30,000 guilders. We went from being a private starch factory to being members of a large cooperative.’

‘From private to cooperative, that must have been a big change, right?’, Luuk asks his father. But, according to Egbert, not much has changed: ‘We started delivering our potatoes again. We were left empty-handed when KSH stopped. That hasn’t happened to us so far with Avebe.’ As a member of the cooperative, Egbert was a co-owner of the company. Iris wonders if he felt responsible as a member. ‘As long as the potatoes were paid for and the price was right, I didn’t get involved with the ins and outs of the cooperative,’ he answers.

Certainty
Egbert: ‘Avebe has been very important to me. It was the most profitable crop I had and Avebe gave me security of sale.’ And it’s still true today, says Luuk: ‘A large part of our turnover comes in through Avebe’. Iris adds: ‘And starch potatoes take up a large part of our acreage, about 60%. It’s our most important crop, but not the most profitable’. The Bouwers have made the conscious decision to grow starch potatoes as the basis of the farm. Luuk: ‘On sandy soil you have less freedom to choose a crop, we also have a lot of weeds to contend with. Avebe provides us with the certainty we need to cover part of the business risk. It’s nice to know that you have a reliable customer who pays out stably. Even in times of disappointing quality and results.’

Luuk and his wife Truus Bouwers took over the arable and pig farm from Egbert and his wife Lammie. Iris went into partnership with her parents in 2016. All generations are involved in the company. The arable farming operation is 120 hectares in size and the farming plan includes 72 hectares of starch potatoes, 5 hectares of onions, 5 hectares of valerian, 8 hectares of sugar beet, 8 hectares of gluten-free oats, supplemented with malting barley. The Bouwers family keeps pigs in a 1-star ‘Better Life’ sty. Egbert occasionally still helps out on the farm, Luuk works every day and in addition to her work on the farm, Iris works as a lobbyist for the Agriculture and Horticulture Organisation Netherlands (LTO) in Brussels.

THE FARM
ABOUT

‘In my early years there were problems at Avebe, right up to abolition of the European subsidies. That was the turning point,’ Luuk recalls. Iris explains: ‘Starch cultivation was traditionally strongly subsidised by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). A part of the money went to Avebe at the time and a part to the growers. This changed after the abolition of subsidies. The European starch subsidy was then paid directly to growers. This component has now been virtually eliminated and the starch potato grower also receives a regular hectare subsidy. Avebe began to think in a more market-oriented way because they knew that the suppliers, with the subsidy they received directly, could also choose alternative crops.

The customers of Avebe’s products were willing to pay a higher price; they realised that Avebe had to reward its growers in such a way as to secure the supply of raw materials. ‘In recent years, we’ve been able to benefit greatly from CAP policy.’ Luuk is concerned about the future of the CAP: ‘How much public support will remain? Payment from the CAP is likely to change after 2020. Anticipating this will be quite a challenge.’ Especially when starch potato cultivation has to be cleaner, Iris wonders how this will be paid out. ‘We’d like to produce more sustainably and cleanly, but our product is a bulk product that isn’t immediately visible to the consumer. A cleaner or different production method doesn’t necessarily add value. If the requirements change, our costs will also increase. The risk lies with the grower and that effort should also
be rewarded,’ says Iris.

End of subsidies

‘We didn’t have those challenges before,’ Egbert says. ‘The world and society are changing. When people become better off, they start focusing more on these issues.’ Another challenge that Luuk foresees is access to land and associated land prices. ‘When my father started out, we were growing potatoes for a number of years and the soil paid for itself in those days. Physical yields have barely gone up, but cultivation and soil costs have risen sharply. In spite of the low interest rates, the land for the cultivation of starch potatoes is almost impossible to finance.’ This is also a major problem in the case of company takeovers, Iris explains. ‘Where many young farmers opt for a more efficient production method and a matching earning model, this is difficult for the starch potatoes. More intensive cultivation is not an option, we already grow very intensively. We only benefit from a growing year with optimal weather conditions and minimal disease. It is and remains an open crop, so you’re always dependent on the weather conditions.’

Challenges

‘Over the years, the cultivation of starch potatoes has become highly mechanised. There hasn’t been much progress with the yield,’ says Luuk. ‘But a lot of work has been done to build in resistance in starch potato varieties. This has been important to ensure the industry’s supply of raw materials.’ The throughput of varieties is now faster, Egbert notes. ‘We used to have one variety over a long period of time, but now there is a whole new variety package every ten years. Our first variety was the “Volare”. Later we had the “Mentor” for a long time. But that was vulnerable to the potato disease phytophthora.’ The use of crop protection products has also changed over the years, of course. Not only the frequency but also the working method. ‘Combating phytophthora was one of the biggest challenges for me,’ says the first generation of Bouwers. ‘Things were very unclear, so I just did it my way. I sometimes even waited another day with spraying to save money, that’s just how I was. In the beginning, the agricultural contractor even went over the acreage on horseback. Only later did we invest in a sprayer ourselves.’ The work also used to be physically harder, Egbert recalls: ‘We used to harvest the potatoes by hand. We transported them by flat trailer to the farm and then shovelled about seven tons of potatoes into the truck.’ Major changes have also been made to the crop registration system. ‘Records? There was really no need for them. The forerunner of the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO) came to carry out random checks. The rest was all in my head,’ says Egbert. According to Iris, Luuk still has all the necessary knowledge at hand. ‘I do it mainly for the inspection authorities and to compare our results with those of other growers.’ ‘Still, I think we can do even more with it in the future,’ says Iris. ‘We’ll see,’ concludes Egbert. ‘There’s nothing harder than predicting the future.’

Changes over the years

YOUNG AND OLD
GROWERS