RedStar starts a pilot with robots to analyse plant welfare

Biggest challenge? The war on talent.

Back in the day, RedStar started by growing lettuce under glass. The company has since grown into an unmistakable specialist in the field of high-quality, tasty tomatoes, and operates in all links of the chain. To maintain its leading position in the market, RedStar invested in its own innovation group, RedStar collaborates with TU Delft and RoboValley, amongst others, to formulate and effectuate innovation projects. There’s no shortage of ideas. Biggest challenge? The war on talent.

To be able to formulate and effectuate innovation projects an innovation group was founded within RedStar. Steven Timmers, Manager Planning & Control at RedStar: ‘Our aim, with this innovation group that consists of folks from the cultivation, ICT and logistics departments, is to develop innovation projects from different perspectives. Therefore, in collaboration with TU Delft and RoboValley, we started several studies. We’ll soon be starting a pilot with a startup in the field of robotics. We’ll be using smart cameras to analyse plants, so we’ll be able to see when a plant is not doing so well or has specific deviations. These cameras will pinpoint which section we need to take a closer look at.’

Perhaps, this type of study can solve the problem that Patrick Van der Kaaij identified. Patrick is General Manager Tuinen (Gardens) Voorne-Putten at RedStar. Patrick: ‘It would be great if we could get machines to do the strenuous physical work for us. Right now, the machines are still too underdeveloped for this to happen. Every tomato hangs from the plant in a slightly different way, requiring a different approach. Knowledge expansion is required for both the technicians and the actual technology before this process can be automated’.

Seduce talent to work in horticulture sector

An important condition for success is the availability of talent. RedStar invests in attracting talent but also has plenty of programs to educate people in-house. One of the challenges in the Netherlands is the image and reputation of the sector. Steven Timmers: ‘The horticulture sector receives much more recognition abroad than in our own country. Here, folks still think all we do is pick tomatoes. However, the process is fairly technical.’

RedStar collaborated with other established Rotterdam Food Cluster companies at the Markt Match two-day student event, to secure a more prominent position for the sector amongst the new generation. During the event, two hundred undergraduate (senior secondary education, higher vocational education and university education) students worked on challenges from and with world players in the regional food sector, related to plant-based diets, food wastage and the recruitment of (young) talent.

Timmers continues: ‘Our aim in taking part in Markt Match was to secure a more prominent position amongst students and schools in the Rotterdam region. Many of the schools still know very little about us. Some of the schools also don’t see the connection to the horticulture sector. However, educational programmes that aren’t specifically food-related, like communications and economics, can also land you in the horticulture sector. Take me, for example. I studied logistics and economics and ended up at RedStar through my traineeship. Here, my enthusiasm for the horticulture sector took off.’

Man standing on a stage

Unknown, unloved?

The results of MarktMatch are promising, according to Timmers. ‘A survey of the 200 students in attendance reveals that 50% are considering a career in the horticulture sector and 16% answer ”yes” wholeheartedly. Now, it’s important for us to give some thought to the Markt Match sequel. We’ve planted a seed. Now, we must continue our collaboration so we can differentiate our sector.’ According to Van der Kaaij, we should also be collaborating with producer groups and retail organisations, in addition to the labour market parties.

Timmers believes they should advocate and represent the sector, not only as RedStar but as the entire food cluster. ‘Collaborating within the Rotterdam Food Cluster and organising events like Markt Match are crucial if we want to maintain our number one position. Therefore, we’d like to arrange a sequel to this event. By working together, we can do a better job of promoting the sector. To be specific, this could lead to things like common packaging solutions and shared traineeships. We don’t mind if the trainee chooses us once, and chooses a different fruit and vegetable company the next time. It’s about what’s best for the sector. The horticulture sector is the answer to different food-related issues like the growing food problem and the world’s growing population. As a sector, we must take a stand, and we must convey the message.’

Inspired by the RedStar story?

Get in touch with Rotterdam Food Cluster to discover how you can collaborate with RedStar and all other inspiring food related companies in the Rotterdam region: