I don’t think we’re in the fruit business anymore, Toto

Here are some “get you thinking” questions as a warm up for this blog post:

            What do you think diversification means?

            How far would you go to diversify your operation?

            What does innovation mean to you?

I’m still on that industry tour in Rotterdam, having my eyes opened by some very clever stuff at a tomato growing operation.

This operation has a single structure glasshouse covering 9ha (yes – nine hectares and don’t ask me to convert that to “x number of rugby fields” because I don’t think that way) and had two features that really caught my attention because they’re the result of incremental progress and innovation.

The first would make a model railway enthusiast beg for a job here: robotic trains.  This place was so huge that the trusty Dutch bicycle wasn’t able to deal with the issue of getting from one end of the plant to the other efficiently.  Cue some attention to progress and innovation, et voila, they have implemented a set up where driverless electric “robocars” run between the vines transporting just harvested tomatoes in their crates to where they need to go – quickly, effectively and very quietly.

Coming through!

The whole layout has been designed to fit these trains – the vines are set a certain distance apart, the ground is sealed, housekeeping is immaculate and so on.  All so the trains can run about their task with no damage to the crop or themselves.  Never mind the added bonus of meeting quality and food safety requirements more easily – you know, areas are able to be kept clean, minimal handling, traceable…

Very nifty, I thought.  But wait, there’s more.

Those of you who know anything about growing hothouse tomatoes know that glasshouses can be power hungry.  For those of you not so familiar with the process, here’s a basic overview: with conventional glasshouses, the growing of winter crops in summer or the growing of summer crops in winter requires the cooling or heating of the glasshouse respectively.  Energy utilisation indices for conventional glasshouses range from 2,000 to 2,500 Mj/m2/year compared with office buildings that have a range from 630 to 1,110 Mj/m2/year. With such large energy requirements, any improvements in energy efficiency and sustainability will have a large impact and would be well worth pursuing.  Conventional glasshouses are heated with either oil-fired space heaters or various forms of electrical heating systems (using grid-supplied electricity). As a consequence of the exorbitant heating costs involved, the volume of crops grown using glasshouses is constrained, as is the period over which cultivation takes place.  I won’t even start on the carbon footprint argument.

Therefore, anyone wanting to have a glasshouse operation of any size these days needs to think very seriously about energy supply, cost and environmental impact.  As stated earlier, the size of this operation is large.  Large enough for them to create a scale of operation that they have found works to keep them in the business of growing tomatoes.  Along the way, as a result of pursuing innovation in the area of energy generation and conservation they have achieved self-sustainability with regards their energy needs.  If fact, they are now able to generate so much energy that they are able to store the excess and sell it to the national grid!

Energy stored as hot water prior to selling to the grid

I was told that the plant now makes more income from energy generation than it does from growing tomatoes – the whole reason they started the operation in the first place.

Does it matter then, what they grow in this supersized glasshouse?

Do they consider themselves a tomato grower or an energy supplier?

In order to be the best growers they could be, this operation has been very proactive with progress and innovation in order to produce the outcomes they were aiming at – the same outcomes of any fresh produce grower: quality produce, supplied in volume, in time and with a good return.  However, the better they got, the more opportunities it opened up, and in areas I bet they never envisaged when they started down their innovation track.

Now, let’s have a crack at answering those questions I posed at the beginning:

Useful innovation can come from working on ways to improve one’s business so that one can stay in that business.

Diversification has long been a mantra extolled by many as an option to safeguard existing business and to grow at the same time.

Combining the innovation and diversification surely makes good sense.

So, in the drive to stay in business in today’s ever changing conditions, how open would you be to diversifying completely away from your core business, as in this case from producing tomatoes, if the achieved innovation based successes opened up a completely different business opportunity such as producing energy?

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