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“They even know Seed Valley in China”

The green beans that are in the supermarket always look like a green bean. But the beans that are now on the shelf are different from those of previous seasons. The spinach? Tastes the same and looks the same as usual, but comes from a variety that did not exist last year. At Pop Vriend in Andijk new, improved vegetable varieties are constantly being bred.

Pop Vriend Seeds is a key supplier of vegetable seeds for a range of major brands. Anyone who opens a jar of green beans, a can of corn or a pack of spinach in the kitchen is likely to encounter vegetable varieties from this company. In addition to an office, laboratory, greenhouses, breeding gardens and a distribution centre in Andijk, there are sales offices in various countries. In Andijk, seeds are bred for spinach, green beans, carrots, beetroot and chard. The seeds are exported to more than 100 countries, says director Lara Timmerman. Together with her cousin Arwin Vriend, she is the third generation working within the family business that was recently taken over by the German breeder KWS. That strives for continuation and expansion of all activities from its location in Andijk.

Silicon Valley
After all, Seed Valley, in which Pop Vriend is located together with other breeders, is the birthplace of international seed breeding. Seventy percent of the seeds used on earth have their origins in the Netherlands and the vast majority of them come from Seed Valley, Timmerman says. “Wherever I am in the world, when I say that I’m from Andijk, colleagues know exactly where that is. Even in China. Seed Valley is for breeders and growers worldwide what Silicon Valley is for technologists. Everyone knows us. That can only lead to further growth.”

Drones and DNA

The vegetable varieties of Pop Vriend are being further developed every year. “For example, we make them disease-resistant so that fewer crop protection agents are needed, ensure that a higher yield is achieved with less input, make seeds heat-resistant, drought-resistant, ensure that the vegetables have a longer shelf life, a better colour, an improved taste and so on. A great deal is being innovated in our sector. We are used to coming up with new products every year. We use a wide range of new technology to achieve this. For example, we fly drones over the trials fields in the summer to measure the growth rate of plants every day. We then know how fast the different varieties grow. And thanks to DNA technology it is becoming increasingly easier to discover how the genes of the plants work and which gene is responsible for which trait. We can already read properties from the DNA, without having to wait until the plant is fully grown. That is one of the opportunities for enabling us to speeding up our breeding process. The sooner we can come up with better varieties and the cheaper we can do that, the more access there is to material that benefits a grower.”

New technology
A major advantage of the recent acquisition by KWS is that Pop Vriend Seeds now has faster access to their new technologies, Timmerman explains enthusiastically. “It’s fantastic to know that our company now has access to a candy store full of technology and expertise at KWS. And it’s nice to see what opportunities and possibilities arise and how we can apply the new potentials of data informatics, biotechnology and artificial intelligence in the future. Thanks to these new technologies, research projects will certainly be shortened in time.”

Green high-tech jobs
That does not mean that jobs will disappear, Timmerman emphasises. “On the contrary, new jobs are being created that do not yet exist. We operate in a very fast-growing sector. There is a job with us in Seed Valley for every student from Clusius College, HAS University of Applied Sciences or Wageningen University. You are given responsibility with us fairly quickly and if all goes well you can travel around the world almost immediately, from Chile to New Zealand or, for example, America. It is green high-tech. It is interesting and very socially responsible work. You contribute to ensuring that every person in the world can eat in a fair way and that there is enough for everyone.”

Tiny mini heroes
Pop Vriend has 25 hectares of trial fields for testing the seeds, Timmerman explains. “In addition, we do trials in collaboration with our customers in fields worldwide. Ultimately, we need to know how our varieties are doing at their destination. They also need to grow well in very hot or dry areas and be resistant to diseases and fungi that we do not have here. The stronger a seed is, the better it will last under stress. The seeds are in my opinion tiny mini-heroes. They have to do it.”

Top 3 in the world
Trial fields are also located at industrial processors, such as Bonduelle, Iglo and Delmonte. “These are important customers for us. We do trials at their locations to determine what does or does not work for them. Africa and Asia are also important markets for us, just like the Middle East. We are already the world market leader in spinach and chard. Our ambition is to be among the top 3 in the world with all the crops we breed. That’s a question of time.”