Dutch houseplant industry with optimism back to business but uncertainty and volatility remain

Attendees and exhibitors were visibly happy to meet face-to-face again.

Royal FloraHolland’s Mid-Winter Fair (11 and 12 January 2023) can be considered Trade Fair Aalsmeer’s smaller sibling, and seeing the number of exhibitors and plants on display, it certainly is. While Trade Fair Aalsmeer in November attracts between 500-600 exhibitors each year, the auction’s Mid-Winter event has around 100 participants.

However, being smaller and quieter is sometimes better; on a less overcrowded show floor, there was more quality face-to-face time and genuine connection. The Mid-Winter Plant Fair is meant to forge long-term business relationships, but it’s also about on-the-day sales and actual order writing.

What’s more, the show’s timing is perfect. January marks the end of the holidays and traditionally strong demand for houseplants as people look for houseplants to substitute their Christmas trees. Plus, the new year fuels the entrepreneurial spirit, with a stronger-than-usual drive to restart business with a sharper focus. Or, as country singer Brad Paisley famously coined it, ‘Tomorrow is the first blank page of a 365-page book. Write a good one.’

Exhibitors reflected on the good and bad of last year. To start with the good news: Few home décor items have cultivated the reference Dutch-grown flowering houseplants and tropical foliage plants. The Dutch houseplant assortment is rich in history, craftsmanship, variety, and quality. The dominance of Dutch houseplants in the European marketplace is an example of specialisation, a relentless search for innovation and new markets and a combination of the quintessential green fingers combined with modern greenhouse technology.

Last year, the Netherlands was still in partial lockdown. It is interesting how quickly post-Covid-19 recovery occurred among horticultural trade exhibitions.  Attendees and exhibitors were visibly happy to meet face-to-face again.

L-R: Richard Visser and Corné van Winden staffing the Forever Plants stand.

It is safe to say that they’re equally happy that the global houseplant craze – contrary to common belief- started pre-pandemically – that is, half the 2010s – has not yet reached its peak. The even better news is that houseplants and Millennials seem a long-lasting affair after the industry’s long-lasting struggle to get the young generation interested in their Yucca or Ficus.

These are precisely the plants the Forever Plants Group grows. Operating from three sites in Westland and Pijnacker, the 10-ha plant nursery sells to retailers and interior designers. In 1988, Erik Persoon, a former familiar face within Royal FloraHolland’s board of directors, took over his father’s tomato nursery swapping fresh produce for houseplants. Forever Plants is a family business with the third generation, and Erik’s son Thom is now running the company’s daily management. At the Midwinter Plant Fair, sales reps Richard Visser and Corné van Winden staffed the Forever Plants booth noting that following a post-summer sales slump in 2022, demand is back again.

Remco Hill, a member of the company’s board of directors, said that true to tradition, January marks a good start to the new year. “The demand for tropical foliage plants remains resilient, proof that many people find that green indoor plants make the perfect substitute for their Christmas tree.”

Looking back on last year, Hill says that amid increasing pressure for horticultural businesses to become more sustainable, 2022 has been the year with an even stronger focus on growing the plant nursery’s green credentials. “We equally put more time and energy into establishing enduring connections with our customers. And these efforts have started paying off now. Sales slowed significantly in the second half of 2022, but we mostly managed to turn things around.”

Energy and resilience will continue to be trending words this year. “Practices to manage the situation include reducing lighting levels, keeping  greenhouses at slightly cooler temperatures, and using our geothermal heat even more efficiently.”

For 2023 Hill anticipates supply volumes to decrease and demand to soften slightly, urging the company and its customers to look for growth opportunities together. “The good news is that our assortment is vast in varieties and pot sizes, allowing us to adapt to the market more easily. Fortunately, we can see that more generally speaking, green indoor plants continue to be hot.”

Royal FloraHolland’s Mid-Winter Plant Fair is the perfect time as January marks the end of the holidays and traditionally strong demand for houseplants with people looking for houseplants to substitute their Christmas tree.

Brothers Jelle and Joram Kuijvenhoven run JK Plant. After renting greenhouse space to grow a wide range of seasonal plants, they began their 35,000m2 plant nursery in Honselersdijk, including a 21,000m2 new greenhouse. JK Plant’s plant portfolio includes Araucaria heterophylla, aka Norfolk Island pine or living Christmas tree in pot sizes 10.5, 12, 14, 17, 21 and 27cm, Spathiphyllum in 17cm pots and sold under the Air So Pure brand, Monstera in 17 and 21 cm pots and a range of pot Dahlias, Canna and Campanula Takion during in late spring and summer.

While Jelle is active as the company’s technical manager, Joram is responsible for sales. Commenting on the January peak in sales, he says, “We can see that shops are reopening. The period in which people are looking for houseplants to substitute their Christmas tree is short, with sales frequently modelling on tailor-made retail orders. The business returns to its usual rhythm in the third week of January.”

Looking back on 2022, he references the bumper demand in winter and spring. “Over the first four months of 2022, we experienced higher than usual sales. And it’s with pride that we look back on our partners within the supply chain. Naturally, 2022 also brought challenges such as the energy crises, oversupply, and a hampering demand in the year’s second half.”

To combat the rising energy costs, the brothers partially negotiated a fixed-price contract with their supplier. “By selling electricity back to the grid, we can partially compensate the price for natural gas. Meanwhile, we are looking into more sustainable energy sources, but now, an alternative source is not yet possible, economically viable and available.”

For 2023, Joram sees a bumpy road ahead. “We anticipate a further increase in energy costs and other commodity prices. But by the end of this year, we hope to see a better balance between supply and demand which will eventually benefit the houseplant industry.”

Following a stint as channel development manager at Heinz and within a fresh produce cooperative, Henny van de Wetering more recently joined his brothers Peter and Marco van de Wetering. The latter run the 27,000m2 Wetering Pot Lilium nursery in Den Hoorn, near Delft. In 2006, the Van de Weterings teamed up with Mak Breeding to create a revolutionary new line of potted lilies sold under Lily Looks. Back then, the brothers decided to become as independent as possible by owning a range of genetically short lilies suited for pot cultivation. The company grows around 10 million pot lilies per year, including monochromatic Asiatics (‘Tiny’), two-toned Asiatics (‘Sensation’), Orientals (‘Sunny’), LA-hybrids (‘Summe’r), Longiflorums (‘Miracle’).

Not only the company forces its flowers into bloom, but it also is involved in bulb farming, bulb processing and marketing.  Now, seventeen years later, Lily Looks have become a familiar brand name in the world of lilies. Henny says the company looks back on an eventful year which, especially in the beginning, was off to a good start. Energy costs – particularly the impact of the rising price of natural gas – have had a significant effect on any horticultural business, and Van de Wetering Pot Lilium is no different.  Bearing that energy market volatility will not disappear soon, the company installed HortiLed Top Intense LED lighting from Hortilux in its newest 1.4ha greenhouse, completed in 2021.

Moreover, they replaced their 20-year-old heat storage and invested in a triple-energy screen installation. Sales of potted lilies peak in late winter (Valentine’s Day), spring and summer, and that’s why the company scaled down some of its production in Q4 to save energy. Henny is cautiously optimistic about the year that lies ahead. Orders still come in, albeit at a slower pace.

Poeldijk-based Kwekerij De Rijke grows bedding plants in spring and summer, while the focus is on houseplants (Cyclamen) in the autumn and winter. Gerard and Daniel proudly introduced a two-toned pot carnation for the new spring sales season.

Also, Freek van Velden, a grower of potted gerbera, Garvineas (a half-hardy line of Gerberas for in the garden), Agapanthus, seed-raised Christmas Carol Helleborus, and Poinsettias, notes some delay in orders due to rising cost of living crises and as more reluctant retailers. While the company does not grow the most heat-loving of crops, it still feels the impact of the rise of all commodity prices. On the positive side, outdoor Garvinea trials in front of their office show last summer prove how well the new generation of Garvineas is performing outdoors.

Plant broker Menno van Es, the co-founder of plant ordering platform FloraXchange, which integrated into Royal FloraHolland digital sales platform Floriday, acts as an intermediary between 13 growers and exporters a few years ago in predominantly the Westland and Aalsmeer areas.

Asked about what 2023 will hold in store, he believes that the houseplant craze will continue while growers will opt for more seasonal production of plants which previously were available year-round. Judging from what he sees in Dutch garden centre chains, he feels uncomfortable with the increasingly prominent presence of faux plants also how the energy crises will eventually work out for the Phalaenopsis industry, where 30 per cent of product volume is expected to go out of the market. “Phalaenopsis often makes up 25 per cent of the exporter’s revenues, so the rising price of natural gas and electricity will be clearly felt.”

He adds that when talking to garden retailers, retailers, and garden centres, they say that demand could be better. “But prices continue to be relatively good, so something is going wrong, and this has supposedly to do with supply constraints and fewer product volumes on the market. I think the market will continue to run near normal levels during spring, but the second half of 2023 could be difficult.”

Fellow plant broker Carl Grootscholte from Carl Sales Support shares Van Es’ concerns about closing long-established Phalaenopsis nurseries and its impact on the exporting business. “I am also worried about the impact in the long run. Growers are telling me that for the next two years, they will work with fixed energy deals, the pertinent question being, what will happen next? Will it be economically viable to grow plants in the long run?”

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