NISPEN, Netherlands: Since 2018, Dutch based bay laurel grower Gova, has diversified by collecting bay leaves from pruned branches to derive essential oil from them in a purpose-built laboratory. This action they call the valorisation programme – it means adding value to the green clippings, by converting them into skin care products, hand sanitiser, ice cream, liquorice, or herbal tea. Valorisation helps the Gova plant nursery to improve its green credentials, broaden its value proposition and, hopefully, in the long run, to generate an additional income stream and increase revenues. Participation in the plant repurposing project is open to any grower.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic started to make headlines around the world, recycling, re-use, upcycling and repurposing of waste was reaping the benefits of an increasingly eco-conscious market. The environment-friendly call to swap wasteful linear material consumption patterns of manufacturing for a more circular economy in response to increasing signs of resource depletion all led to this growing trend. Now, with the world adapting to strict hygiene and cleaning protocols, Gova’s VARTA (which is the Dutch abbreviation for valorisation of horticultural and agriculture waste) is gaining momentum. The first batches of bay laurel soap with disinfecting properties and hand sanitiser are currently coming out of their wholly-owned laboratory. And if you were lucky, you might have been treated to a bay laurel ice cream in the Decorum stand at the 2020 IPM Essen show.
With the backdrop of a global health and economic crisis, Gova launched its new products.
Charl Goossens, who with his brother Jack (the current chairman of Royal FloraHolland) took over their parent’s family business in 1998, recalls how in March and April, at the height of the coronavirus outbreak in Europe, Gova plant nursery had its fair share of problems. Their most significant export market, the UK, went under strict lockdown and cut off the retail supply chain at a crucial time.
Like many of the flower and plant growers in the Netherlands, they felt a bit anxious when in days of unfolding dramatic developments Royal FloraHolland saw its turnover drop 83 per cent on 16 March with subsequently tons of unwanted flowers and plants ending up in the landfill. But as soon as the UK garden centres reopened and other European countries eased their lockdowns, they were happy with a noticeable surge in demand for their bay laurels
Meanwhile, in an ironic twist of fate, the coronavirus crisis created new (side) business opportunities and a positive buzz around their latest plant repurposing venture. With such vast amounts of discarded flowers and plants, the question of how to repurpose them had never been more topical – literally. Plus, horticultural businesses in financial distress meant there was a soaring interest in alternative income streams.
Charl himself explains about establishing the valorisation programme two years ago to develop innovative solutions to the pruned branches, which are an unavoidable by-product of the growing process. He says, “Previously composting the woody waste resulted in an organic material which we would use in our potting soils, but we were looking for ways to add more value.”
This new approach challenges current thinking. Charl notes, “Herbal extracts might conjures up images of stinging nettle fertiliser, druids and herbal medicine. But by contrast, VARTA’s method is highly scientific with laboratories and offices available at the Green Chemistry Campus, located at the premises of SABIC in Bergen op Zoom, one of the world’s largest petrochemicals manufacturers . They are keen to work with safer ingredients by bringing alternatives that are more environmentally friendly to the market. In the benchmarking of products we use supercritical carbon dioxide as the extraction solvent of choice. In its supercritical state, carbon dioxide achieves high mass transfer rates and as such high extraction rates. The result is a pure, in absence of any solvent residues.”
Charl says that valorisation requires a fair deal of re-imagination. “As a grower of bay laurel, a plant which is often used in cooking, I can assure you that my plants will not cause harm to the consumer when prepared and eaten as attested by a wide range of certifications based on the results of tests and audits. So, when I prune my plants the off cuts may drop to the soil but they will continue to be a certified product. It all boils down to converting under-utilised material into high value products. That is why I speak about powerful by-products instead of low-grade waste.”
Subscribing to the Potentia e Plantis adage – the power of plants – the Goossens brothers were inspired by the centuries-old soap making techniques from Aleppo in Syria using olive and laurel oil.
This idea had the backing from Dutch innovation platforms such as SIGN and Biobased Delta. Today, VARTA works with people, companies, flower auctions and universities to find and drive the science and technology innovations that will grow the bio-based economy.
When drawing up the VARTA business plan, Gova soon decided to develop an in-house laboratory. Charl elaborates, “A clear benefit was cost. Outsourcing the research process to a third party not only is very expensive – the starting fee is approximately €15,000- and the single conclusion is misty and unsatisfactory: more research is needed. You mostly end up dealing with bio refineries that are well equipped but whose large scale operations are not easy to match with our ambitions.”
The VARTA lab employs two FTEs, Kim Rijnsburger and Nicole van Beers and one part-timer, Michelle Jongenelen, who are on Gova’s payroll. Other investments included a giant vat used for the steam distillation and extraction with organic solvent, which is necessary to make product samples.
In the run-up to the early spring sales, staff clip the plants from November to March and before the longest day of the year. Gova harvests around 100,000 litres of cut offs per year, air dries, milles, sieves and stores the clippings in a dry and cool environment ready for the extraction process.
“In one round, you can steam-distillate up to 600 litres of foliage yielding 0.75 litres of essential oil. When steaming Laurus nobilis for 45 minutes to 1 hour, the distillation yields an highly concentrated extract. This process can be repeated several times per day. Gova’s laurel oil has a full and rich scent. This natural beauty comes at a price of a few hundred euros per litre. With that you can produce a whole lot of laurel-based liquorice,” says Goossens jokingly.
The sibling bay laurel growers believe in taking one day at a time. Charl says, “You cannot expect to conquer the world in one day. The challenge is to stay focused on a few core products. And especially in the food supplement business we strive to be open and honest above all. The one thing that makes us better is our short and localised supply chain. In the diabetic tea project, we collect certified plant material from four Dutch growers and extract them here, in our own country. It is not like yew clippings which are collected in the Netherlands, then sent to China to be processed for chemotherapy drugs.”
Although VARTA is born out of a genuine commitment to the environment and belief in the cradle-to-cradle design principle, the Goossens brothers candidly admit that the essence is to find out what their customers want. How they want it, how to get organised to meet those need best and how to get paid for doing so to make a profit. Charl notes, “Our biobased lab offers the competitive advantage of speaking the language that both growers and academics understand while communication and reporting is instantaneous, and rates are reasonable . The first step involves a research literature review available for €1,500.”
Meanwhile, other plant growers are showing an interest in this repurposing trend with high-value ornamentals and fresh produce. For instance: potted herb growers Jacqueline and Christ Monden who run their De Kruidenaer nursery in Etten-Leur, and Lommerse Breeding from Mariahout who are involved in the breeding of Stevia rebaudiana, the natural sweetener. Both have sought to find more uses for high value compounds their plants contain.
Finding new uses for discarded plant material creates a unique flow of inspiration and collaboration enthuses Charl. “We have teamed up with the following companies: bromeliad breeder and propagator Corn Bak; pepper and curry grower Westlandpeppers; and basil grower De Kruidenaer to unlock the anti-diabetic potential of our plants. This cooperation has resulted in an anti-diabetic tea blend. Another exciting exercise is made with sugar beet company Cosun. There is quite obviously a lot of synergy between Gova and Cosun as the compounds in the roots of sugar beet roots may serve as bio treatment against harmful insects in Laurus nobilis, while the laurel oil might protect sugar beet roots against harmful insects.”
Charl stresses that he does not use spurious health claims in the labelling of products. However, to sell them, MPS Product Proof and MPS GlobalGap certification are mandatory.
“When participating in the Dutch Design Week (DDW) we met with young and upcoming designers such as Jalila Essaidi with whom we created a band aid treatment with bay laurel oil which is naturally antibacterial. They told us, consumers are most interested in the real story behind a new product instead of asking for health claims for which you need to enter the complex world of regulations and laws. Our presence at DDW also helped to identify future target clients for the saleable product – millennials or Gen Z- and to outline the market segment.”
Charl concludes by saying, “The funny thing is VARTA is the prime example of a start-up company which belongs to the world of tech savvy and young entrepreneurs. Both Jack and I are in our fifties, so we are no longer spring chickens. That is why we need young people with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics skills and with creative minds. Together we will use our passion towards making a difference. “
Gova Quick Facts
Charl and Jack Goossens are the third generation of what is a quintessential family business. The company traces its origins back to their grandfather Charles Goossens, who in 1931 started to grow vegetables and fruits in his backyard. Nearly five decades later, his son Harry swapped the fresh produce for bay laurel.
Situated over two locations in Nispen, a land that once was called a seignory (a territory over which a lord hold jurisdiction), Gova grows 25ha of bay laurel and produces in excess of 300,000 plants annually. The products include kitchen bay laurel, which in terms of volumes is the most significant product. Then there are lollipop standards (turnover wise a staple crop), laurel balls, pyramids and mini trees, with ornately plaited or spirally trained stems.
Charl took his early education at the Aalsmeer horticultural school and joined the company at 19. Jack studied business management, worked for a bank and came onboard in 1995. Three years later the two brothers took over management of the plant nursery from their parents.
Laurus nobilis is a host plant of the plant-bacteria Xylella fastidiosa. This health risk is why Gova opted for a closed-loop cultivation system where they no longer source plants from abroad.
Softwood cuttings are taken in August and September. Laurus nobilis is a slow-growing tree with kitchen laurel finishing in 16 months, while lolly pop standards require four to eight years to grow into saleable plants. In the winter, all the plants are brought indoors to the greenhouse to protect them against frost, moist climates and cold winds.
The company is also involved in plant breeding, with botanical collections set aside to develop for example varieties that are more frost resistant or develop sturdier stems.
To (container) grow the perfect Laurus nobilis a grower needs to understand the tricks of the trade: water moderately to avoid root damage and add preferably water-soluble fertilisers instead of coated granules. Charl explains,”“Slow-release fertilisers are a firm favourite with many nursery stock growers but we prefer to use water-soluble fertilisers as these allow us to steer the crop better and give us better insight what is happening inside the container.”
In terms of crops and diseases, Xylella fastidiosa is currently the most dreaded bacteria. In contrast, while the plant can be susceptible to aphids and oleander scale (Aspidiotus nerrii) which parasitic wasps can regulate. More challenging to combat biologically is the bay sucker (Lauritrioza alacris) which causes leaves to thicken and curl downwards at the margins and turn yellow.
Bottom line is that in protecting kitchen bay laurel only biocontrols are used with MPS Productproof and MPS Global Gap being two significant licenses to produce. On specimen plants very few chemicals are used. Gova stresses that despite the increased use of biological control the plants do not grow organically. Charl says, “To grow organically you are forced to refrain from manufactured fertilisers and use cow manure for example. For annuals this might be an option, mixing the manure into your potting soil but this will not work in a four-year long containerised production.”
A member of Royal FloraHolland, Gova sells its plants through the auction-based wholesalers with the UK, Germany and France being the most successful export ventures. However, their lollipop standards are also a firm favourite with Norwegian, Swedish, and Finnish customers. (Discount) sales to Eastern Europe are also soaring.