Russian-Dutch Agribusiness: A Hothouse of Activity
- By Ezekiel Pfeifer
- Mar. 16 2010 00:00
At a recent seminar in Moscow of the Dutch government's newly launched grow2gether program, designed to promote Dutch greenhouse technologies to Russian farmers and distributors, a Russian representative of the Dutch company Aweta showed the audience a slide with two pictures on it. On the left was a loose pile of nearly rotten bell peppers; on the right, a photo of immaculate red, green and yellow peppers, neatly packaged in plastic wrap and mini Styrofoam trays and stacked in a curving half-rainbow.
"Which picture looks more attractive?" the woman asked with a joking smile. A chorus of voices cried out, "On the right!" and she nodded and said, "Yes — on the right, of course. The left is our past; the right is already our present, what customers expect, and we must work to satisfy these new, higher demands of the buying public."
The grow2gether program, together with other Dutch efforts in the agribusiness sector, is the Netherlands' sizeable contribution to meeting these expectations — offering its world-class expertise, experience and technology to help their Russian counterparts reap the benefits of the country's seemingly boundless growth potential.
"Russians are aiming at 80 percent self-sufficiency for their food supply, and while I would say that they are behind that target somewhat, looking at the production potential, the conditions in Russia are good enough to be 100 percent self-sufficient," affirmed Marinus Overheul, Counselor for Agriculture, Nature & Food Quality at the Dutch Embassy in Moscow. "There are even Russian companies that have the ambition to export to the European Union."
And if Dutch business interests have anything to do with it, this goal could be achieved sooner than many might expect. Companies from the Netherlands have been among the leaders in the drive to modernize the Russian agricultural system, with foodstuffs, livestock, seeds, machinery and other agricultural products representing more than a fifth of Dutch exports to Russia and a total value of 1.5 billion euros in 2008. This booming export includes not only the traditional Dutch symbols, such as fresh-cut tulips, but also burgeoning niches for the Netherlands, such as dairy cows, which are exported to the Russian Federation in herds: nearly 50,000 have made the trip to farms in Russia in the last few years.
These trends do not go unnoticed by the Dutch government. Because of the popularity of the Dutch cow in Russia, and following the introduction of a priority program in 2005 by then-President Vladimir Putin directed toward the upgrading of the country's dairy and meat industries, the Dutch have even opened what they call "livestock expertise centers" that Russian farmers and investors can call
for training and advice on how to keep their cattle happy.
"You can compare these dairy cattle to top sportswomen," explained Overheul. "They can play if you give them the right feed and create the right conditions for them to perform at the high level that they have the genetic potential to perform at. But if you don't take care of the cows in the proper way, they will never reach that production potential."
Production "software" — things such as organization, know-how and the professionalism of workers — receives far less attention from Russian farmers than do technical aspects of the work, according to Overheul. With the livestock expertise centers and now the grow2gether program, the software side is one area in which the Dutch aim to make their mark.
Through grow2gether, Dutch greenhouse companies, in coordination with the Dutch government, will sponsor a series of workshops, seminars, meet-and-greets and trade missions to Russia and the Netherlands over the next three years. The goal of the program and all its events is to play matchmaker for willing participants in the two countries' agribusiness sectors, exchanging knowledge and technology from the Dutch side for what the Dutch hope will be contracts and project plans with Russian partners.
"The advantage of the grow2gether program is that it's a complete program," explained grow2gether board member and Dutch flower dealer Hennie Brockhoff. "All the technical companies from the Netherlands that are able to work on the success of a greenhouse — they have such a lot of experience and knowledge. And that's why it's called grow2gether — together, they can help Russian investors to make a project successful."
According to Brockhoff, who grew flowers in the Netherlands for 25 years before retiring from planting and moving into trade, the trend in the Netherlands is away from exporting plants and other products and toward offering both hardware, as the Dutch are world leaders in technical innovations, and software — expertise and knowledge. In recent years, major Dutch players in the greenhouse sector have pioneered new energy-saving climate-control technologies, special roof designs to maximize light capture and systems to siphon off excess solar energy to go into cities' power grids, among other advances.
Of late, they have also made plans to offer startup capital — Dutch financial giant Rabobank will be opening full agrobanking operations in Russia this summer — and have always been able to lend another intangible: the magic touch of the Dutch grower.
"From my experience in Eastern Europe, farmers are really well-educated in theoretical matters — even better than in Holland, I think," said Brockhoff. "But in practice, they don't always know how to manage, maybe because of the former system that was in place during Soviet times. But to manage a company like this and to get good results, you need the practical thinking, and, most importantly, you need the green fingers of a grower from Holland!
"Growers from Holland are famous for their green fingers. They walk into a greenhouse, they don't need a thermometer — they just feel the air, and they can tell you whether the climate is okay or not. And that I think is why the Dutch are so successful in this."