Chicory and radicchio for the international market, year-round.
Based in North Holland, Firma de Boer is a true family farm. ‘My grandfather started a mixed farm that was taken over by my father and my uncle.
My nephew and I are now running it together,’ says Rob de Boer. ‘We chose to specialize in chicory and radicchio, but we also have a field of tulip bulbs.’
Salads and garnishing
What’s the difference between chicory and radicchio?
‘Radicchio has a milder taste and it’s used in different ways,’ says Rob. ‘It’s suitable for salads or may be used as a garnish for meat. You should eat it raw, because it loses its colour when it’s cooked. In the Netherlands, you can only find radicchio at the restaurant wholesaler Makro. Ordinary consumers have yet to discover it. This is why we mostly rely on the international market. Our radicchio is sold all over the world.’
Rob explains how their farm supplies the market with chicory and radicchio year-round.
‘The crop cycle begins in May. We bring our seeds to multiple crop farmers, both national and international. This is how we spread the risks, because some harvests could fail due to bad weather conditions. This way we’re sure that our chicory and radicchio are always available. Towards the end of October, the chicory roots are harvested and delivered to us.’
‘When the chicory roots arrive at our farm, they go into storage,’ Rob continues. ‘This is a cold storage with a temperature of just below zero. After the period in storage, we take batches of chicory out every week. They are put in containers of 520 pieces. These are set up straight in a dark, humid shed with a temperature between 15 and 17 °C. Twice a day, we measure whether the temperature and the degree of humidity are optimal. The radicchio is ready after nineteen days; the chicory takes another two days. In November the last, old roots come out of the cold storage; in December the new batch is ready for the next crop cycle. This is how we can supply chicory and radicchio year-round.’
Emptying containers with a robot
Emptying containers is physically very taxing.
‘After the growing period, the chicory and radicchio get stuck in the racks and the roots are wet and dirty,’ explains Rob. ‘Just to give you an indication: for our production 3,000 roots of chicory and radicchio have to be pulled out of the racks every hour. This was very physically demanding for both us and our staff. There had to be an easier way of doing this. Six years ago, I started working with the Rolan Robotics company in order to develop a robot. The robot combines emptying the containers with cutting the roots. We’ve managed to take out all the little malfunctions and now the robot is doing the dirty and heavy work. We only need human hands for straightening out the roots on the conveyor belt and for removing the outer leaves. I’m already thinking about automating this phase of the process as well.’
Ozone against fungi
In order to reduce our impact on the environment, we use ozone,’ says Rob.
‘By means of a compressor, we release ozone into the cold storage.’ The ozone then destroys the fungi. Ozone also limits the emission of ethylene, caused by plant growth. This is beneficial to the roots. And it’s needless to say that we reuse all of our water.’