Smart Farmer: Wilbert van Wijk

A blossoming family fruit orchard

A small orchard has blossomed to become one of the leading fruit producers and traders in the Netherlands. “We have the whole supply chain under one roof and have always had a sustainable mindset,” explains Wilbert van Wijk.

Van Wijk Fruit, located in ’t Goy near Utrecht in the Netherlands, has been producing top-quality apples and pears since 1920. “We used to operate 'mixed' farming, with dairy cows grazing in the orchards,” says Wilbert van Wijk, one of two sons who run the business with their father Anton. “We no longer have the cows, but still call it ‘mixed’ because we’ve diversified,” he laughs. “Since 2005 we have cooling, sorting and packing facilities too.”

By branching out in this way, Van Wijk Fruit is now one of the leading fruit producers and traders in the Netherlands. It also rents out its cooling and packaging facilities to other producers. “This has made our business more resilient and set it up for future growth,” says Van Wijk.

“Diversifying has made our business more resilient”

- Wilbert van Wijk, Van Wijk Fruit

Freezing the ripening process

Today, 37 huge cooling cells can hold 4.5 million kilos of fruit, stored at low temperatures in a controlled atmosphere that ‘freezes’ the ripening process for up to 12 months. Cameras sort the produce to filter out the bruised fruit, and it is custom-packaged to clients’ needs.

The sustainable mindset which Van Wijk says they’ve always had is not only applied to how they grow the fruit (all of it carries Planet Proof certification) but also to how they manage their facilities. “By maintaining the whole supply chain under one roof, we’ve almost eliminated transportation,” he explains. That’s less CO2.

“We installed 1,554 solar panels on our roofs last year, and the heat generated by our cooling system is used to warm our living quarters as well as our sorting warehouse, the offices, canteen and workplace.”

Looking beyond organic: Wilbert van Wijk, Van Wijk Fruit

Planet Proof

Van Wijk is confident that they are “doing the right thing” by choosing Planet Proof certification rather than opting, for example, for 100% organic. “In my opinion ‘organic’ is not always best for the environment,” says Van Wijk. “Planet Proof is an integrated approach to creating a healthy balance between the various sustainability themes. It looks at the environment as a whole, so not just crop protection, but impact on local ecosystems, water and the local community.”

Although they have a small export business, most of Van Wijk’s customers, who range from small independent suppliers and restaurants to larger supermarkets (he sells to a co-operative that supplies customers for him) are in the Netherlands.

“Particularly in the Netherlands, consumers can be reluctant to pay extra for certifiably sustainable or organic produce. And one of our biggest challenges is fungus, which can be difficult to control organically.”

This holistic approach is evident in the many bee-hotels dotted around the farm and the pheromone lures in the orchards used to confuse male fruit moths and stop them reproducing.

“Dutch soil and climate are perfect for growing pears”

- Wilbert van Wijk, Van Wijk Fruit

A big share of pears

The business now manages 19 hectares, and what used to be an 80/20 ratio in terms of apples and pears is now shifting towards 20/80 in favor of pears. Wilbert: “The soil and climate here in the Netherlands are perfect for growing pears; apples can be grown elsewhere at a much lower cost to income ratio. We have 11 hectares planted with Conference pears. They produce a lot of fruit per hectare, and last year we introduced Sweet Sensation, a juicy red variety, onto a further five hectares." The remaining land is devoted to popular apple varieties such as Elstar, Jonagold and Golden Delicious.

Wilbert and his brother Nico are both still in their 30s, but are committed to keeping the business in the family, although the next generation is still young. “In five years’ time we still want to have everything under one roof,” he says, “and to have one of the biggest fruit-packing facilities in the Netherlands. We also want to support small local growers, who have just seven to eight hectares. They can become a bit lost in the market.”