Exploring the Future of Greenhouse Production
Interview with Just Roos, Chief Tomato Officer at FoodVentures.
In our Inside-Out interview series, we delve into a captivating conversation with Just Roos, a driving force behind FoodVentures‘ global business development.
Roos unravels the essence of the company, positioning it as a global greenhouse operator with a revolutionary business model reminiscent of the international hotel industry. Their unique approach involves partnering with external investors, transforming the landscape of greenhouse production. As we learn more about their company, we also talk about Roos’ vision for the future of food and the way FoodVentures navigates towards a more sustainable future of food with controlled greenhouse agriculture.
Just, FoodVentures is a company engaged in greenhouse vegetable production, but you don’t own greenhouses. Can you explain what FoodVentures is and does and what your business model looks like?
Of course! FoodVentures is a global greenhouse operator. In essence, we are a Dutch grower on a global playing field. Our business model is comparable to the international hotel model; an external investor builds a greenhouse (usually based on specifications provided by us) and owns it. This investor is looking for a stable return on his investment. FoodVentures rents the greenhouse, takes care of its operation and is responsible for it as well. We usually organize sales with a fixed partner.
In the end, when we are profitable, profits are shared with the initial investor and owner of the property. We aim to lower the risk for all partners and therefore commit to long term agreements, usually 20 plus years. That gives us and the initial investor the opportunity to create value and build a relationship of trust that lasts.
Unlike other companies active in the industry, your partners are often real estate investors or others who don’t necessarily have experience in greenhouse horticulture. Will these partnerships be the future of controlled environment agriculture? How do you see the future of greenhouse production?
In our view, it is essential to split the assets from the operations. Both have different risk and returns. We typically see large scale investors like pension funds, or real-estate investors, searching for stable long-term return. And more and more, these returns must come from assets that no longer depend on the carbon-industry. Greenhouses are a new type of asset class that fits these investors very well. It offers long-term stable returns, and fits in the food- and energy agendas.
As FoodVentures, we aim for a so-called asset light approach. We would rather see the assets removed from our balance sheet, and are seeking a pure operator risk-return. You see this also in other industries like the hotel business or the car building EV industry. We strongly feel the need to provide healthy food to a growing population and to do this locally; produce where the food is consumed. Our focus lies on operation and organization, not on owning greenhouses all over the world. In our opinion, the hotel model with a split between ownership and operation is ideal for this as it enables us to expand internationally, but without large debts on our balance sheet.
Our partnership model can be very attractive for those who do not have enough experience in CEA, but that do see the market potential and value in sustainable production of healthy food locally.
FoodVentures provides ‘green fingers’ to its investment partners and ensures all runs well in the greenhouse. How do you find talented growers? How necessary are these ‘green fingers’ in the future? And, how do you regard the upcoming innovations in the field of AI and how does your company anticipate that?
Good questions! We just opened an office in the World Horti Center in Westland, the Netherlands. This gives us the opportunity to be close to where the horticultural action is, with both the private sector and multiple educational institutes nearby. Our target group is 2nd generation, adventurous young growers who want to see something of the world before (maybe) stepping into the family company. We aim to train as many junior growers as we can, who then in turn can develop into mid-level managers that work on data support and eventually could become senior growers who oversee our global projects.
Through our experience working in remote areas, we have developed tools to support our growers on distance. Therefore, we rely less on generations of experience on site, but are able to train an “operator” to run the greenhouse with our support on distance. We manage to get teams locally responsible to run greenhouses in about 12-24 months, without the need of an expat grower on site permanently.
We do still see enormous value in eyes and ears on-site, and green fingers would mean a get-it-done mentality to us. They are not ready yet to be replaced by AI. We do of course see the value of automation and data, and we are implementing scouting robots, to give an example, to be able to oversee more hectares with the same number of growers. However, we still believe that the success of harvesting a crop in a greenhouse is due to the workers executing their plant handling tasks well, and on time.
We see the synergy between people, plants, and technology and thanks to AI a single grower can manage larger surfaces and make decisions easier and faster. I suspect what’s happening in a greenhouse some 10 years from now looks very different from what we are doing today, but for us, at this moment, good people are still key.
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Your company is active in so-called frontier markets, in countries like Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Georgia and China. Why there? Can you elaborate on the opportunities and challenges you are encountering in these countries?
To us, new markets mean exciting opportunities, a clear demand for our product, and a hunger for adapting modern technology. In the past years we were able to accumulate a lot of experience by working in 5 different continents and operating in nearly all different climate zones. And, to be honest, the more mature markets were not offered to a new-comer like FoodVentures 10 years ago. We were offered only the most challenging and difficult projects.
If we can make it in these countries and under any given circumstance, we are also set to implement our model in a more established market as we are doing now in the US and Sweden. We are convinced that the Dutch model of greenhouse operation can work anywhere, if you have the right people and protocols in place.
FoodVentures prides itself on strengthening food security in the countries it’s active in. At the same time, our diet cannot only consist of greenhouse vegetables. What is your vision on the current and future food system and what role does greenhouse production play in this?
During the corona crisis I was living in China and there I saw first-hand how important it is to have access to healthy, fresh food and what difference our operation could make, however small scale, to the people in lockdown in Shanghai. We saw clearly that people value fresh vegetables more, they’ve reverted to more home cooking and healthier meals due to the virus and its aftermath.
I personally think that our diets should shift from meat based to plant based and if you can have your fresh vegetables at hand in the city where you live, that is important.
In that line, I also believe that large scale greenhouse operations near cities are the most sustainable way to produce fresh vegetables to the city inhabitants. In the sector we often talk about our ‘license to produce’. I think that controlled environment agriculture can build the pre-conditions for sustainable food production by becoming carbon neutral and thus contributing to a circular economy.
Waste heat, solar panels, geothermal energy, etc. The energy issue is being solved in multiple ways and we now see with our new investors that running an operation with truly sustainable energy sources is becoming a pre-condition. Without that, no greenhouse. At Foodventures we fully agree and aim to become a global leader in the transition of the food system.