Investing more than 6 million euros to sell baby table potatoes in a shrinking consumer market requires, apart from daring, a great deal of vision. The Norwegian family business Bjertnæs & Hoel is looking to the future and, as a result, is seeing its potato sales increasing every year. At their farm, the four entrepreneurs, Åsmund and Lars Bjertnæs and Øystein and Henrik Hoel, tell us how they started from scratch and currently have the entire chain in their own hands, and are now operating successfully in their home market.
For three generations, the Bjertnæs and Hoel families have been growing vegetables and arable crops in the area around the island of Nøtterøy, an hour’s drive to the south of the capital, Oslo. The area is highly suitable for agriculture. The climate along the coastline keeps frost at bay as much as possible, the many hours of sunshine in summer combined with the mild climate and the fertile fields guarantee high-quality crops. Both families specialised in the cultivation of lettuce: sowing, growing, packaging and delivering the produce to the supermarkets themselves. After the merger of the family business in 2008, the entrepreneurs saw that the sales market for lettuce was beginning to become saturated. Since exporting from Norway is difficult, the entrepreneurs sought new opportunities in their market. They noticed at that time that, despite Norway being a closed market, more and more baby table potatoes from France, especially of the Amandine variety, were appearing on the shelves. ‘These were also sold for a much higher price than the Norwegian potatoes’, says Åsmund Bjertnæs (41), the company’s general manager. ‘So, because of the growing demand for locally grown products, we began to explore the potato market in 2013. We found that, at that time, 40 percent of table potatoes were imported. So that turned out to be an interesting market. In 2014, we marketed our first home grown and packaged baby potatoes of the Folva variety’, the enthusiastic potato entrepreneur remembers well.
When setting up the potato branch on the farm, it was soon clear to the entrepreneurs that if you want to set up a profitable crop, you must also keep the packaging in your own hands. ‘On the one hand to improve the quality and on the other to increase the value of your product. An additional benefit is that you can get closer to the consumer and thus implement more innovation’, Åsmund says. ‘Our aim was and still is to replace the French potatoes with high-quality Norwegian ones.’ After an inventory of the market and other categories relating to supermarkets, the entrepreneurs started the project with the market in mind. ‘We started developing three fields of research: namely the shop managers, the shops and, naturally, the consumers’, is how Lars Bjertnæs (37), who originally was an industrial designer by trade, begins his explanation of how to draw up a business plan. ‘We discovered that the Norwegian consumer wants a transparent supply chain. They want to know where their food comes from. In addition, they often go to the supermarket once a day and buy ingredients for only one meal. This means that they no longer buy 10 kilogram bags of potatoes, but only smaller portions. Meanwhile, the composition of the family has also changed. Currently, 50 percent of Norwegian households consist of just one person. We also know that families are busy with all kinds of activities today. Food must therefore be easy and quick to prepare, but must taste good. That’s why we focus on tasty baby potatoes in small packages that can be prepared directly in the skin. In order to stand out from others, we’ve developed our own patented Morene brand, under which we offer our various potato products. This name is based on our rolling landscape formed by a glacier’, Lars explains the consumer’s wishes. ‘But shops are just as important. There’s an on-going battle for space in the store. That means that, as a newcomer, you have to offer something different from what’s already there today. You need to be able to distinguish yourself. We’ve translated this into a beautiful packaging that we also offer in a smart transport tray. This makes the packaging very easy to process in the shop by the shelf–stackers, for we want to make the work as easy as possible for the shop assistants. Moreover, we want to change the old-fashioned image with this packaging. This is desperately needed, because the total table consumption in Norway is falling every year, but the import of those beautiful French potatoes is still increasing annually. Furthermore, we discovered that customers go to the shop three to four times a week for their groceries, which makes potatoes an important product for the supermarket. Because, once consumers buy potatoes, they start thinking of what to have for dinner and then they buy more products. So an attractive potato packaging ensures more sales in the supermarket’, the enthusiastic entrepreneur outlines the developments in the supermarket. ‘To know what the trends in the market are, we’ve also done research among chefs. We wanted to know how a chef uses potatoes in a dish. It turned out that they thought the size of 40 to 60 millimetres, which is widely sold, far too large. They’d rather have a smaller potato. This gives more the appearance of a delicacy and also presents well on the plate. It’s also important that the tubers are all of the same size, then they’re ready at the same time. The chefs also indicated that the Norwegians are eating smaller and smaller portions. Old cookery books still say that 200 grams of potato per person per meal is needed, but that’s no longer the case. That’s where the smaller potatoes and packaging comes in, Lars concludes his market research.
That may have been a nice preliminary study, but the families had no experience with the cultivation, storage or packaging of potatoes yet. So the next question they had to solve was, how can you grow, store and process these beautiful potatoes in Norway? Because they had no knowledge themselves, the family first invested in discovering how to set up a sustainable potato cultivation programme. To this end, they consulted Jan Salomons of the Dutch Delphy information service and worked together with the consultants of Stuart Wale from Scotland and the Dutchman Jacob Eising. ‘It’s important to have as much knowledge available as possible’, Åsmund says. ‘Within our company, it’s also important that we give people a chance to develop. In our lettuce cultivation, we’ve been working since the eighties (the time when many refugees from Vietnam came to Norway) with a group of refugees from that country. We think it’s important to share knowledge and experience in our country with others. That’s a method we’ve also started to use in potato cultivation. For example, we’ve been working with students from the University of Warsaw and other schools in Europe. That’s why it’s mainly young people who are now growing potatoes for us’, says Åsmund. One of them is Mart Kamping from the Netherlands. Together with the Polish engineer Bartosz Ratusznik, he’s responsible for a large part of contemporary potato cultivation and propagation.
After gaining knowledge, Bjertnæs & Hoel presented their first potato harvest to customers in 2014. ‘To make our product known to supermarkets, restaurateurs and chefs, we first invited them to our farm. We wanted to show them in the field what we’re doing and learn from them personally what they want. In doing this, we wanted to make the connection between the field and the plate. We presented the different types of baby potatoes in our new packaging, which Lars developed for this purpose. We offer the potatoes on a tray made of special paper, in packages of 400 and 650 grams. It’s wrapped in a special plastic that prevents condensation. Within our Morene brand, we don’t differentiate between varieties – consumers don’t have a perception of a variety anyway – but we offer different types, such as red-skinned and waxy. The reactions to these were immediately positive. In order to be able to market our potatoes smoothly, we wanted to work with a reputable buyer. We found this in the Norgesgruppen, a group of companies that serves 43 percent of the Norwegian market, including the important supermarket chain Meny. After first delivering to a small number of shops, we now deliver 3,000 tons of baby potatoes every year throughout Norway’, says Åsmund, outlining the development. ‘Because that first field introduction was so successful, we decided, together with Meny, to invite fresh produce chefs as well. No fewer than 350 of them took the trouble to come to our farm and learn about our potatoes. On that same day we worked together with a local beer brand and a meat supplier from the area. Through workshops, the people got to hear our story. We ended the day with a barbecue and a concert in the potato field. A highly efficient way to promote our story and bind people to our brand.’
‘After a few years of growing, storing and packaging potatoes, Stuart Wale signalled that one of the weaknesses in cultivation was the supply of seed potatoes. Due to our closed borders, it’s not possible to import seed potatoes, which is why Wale advised us to start growing seed potatoes ourselves’, Åsmund explains the next step in the chain. ‘This resulted in our young employee, Bartosz Ratusznik, setting-up our own in vitro laboratory. Because we started propagating ourselves, we also introduced a wide range of new varieties. We already had a close business relationship with Agrico but, during the Dutch variety presentation days, we were able to further broaden our search for new varieties. When a variety is admitted to the European varieties list, you can grow them in Norway. However, the import of new varieties is still a rather complicated story. The laboratory plants of each variety, developed abroad in glass tubes, must first be quarantined for three months at our research institute, NIBIO. Only after approval do the certified plants come to us on the farm and can we then start propagating them in our own laboratory’, Åsmund explains. ‘In this way, we break with the traditional way of introducing varieties and create a more flexible market approach’, says the General Manager. ‘We’ve opted for this way of working because this is our view on how to control the entire baby potato chain and because we want to carry out our own research into whether a variety fits within our quality requirements. At the moment, in addition to Agrico, we already have a licence to grow for Plantera, TPC, Solana and Geersing Potato Specialist. Folva is currently our largest variety. We aim to compile a range of varieties that we can offer all year round that fits our product range of baby potatoes. So we’re looking for early to late, and long-storable varieties, the Norwegian outlines his disruptive way of working in Norway.
Meanwhile, Ratusznik (26) proudly shows ‘his’ fast propagation station. To learn the trade, he spent two weeks in 2020 on an internship at the Scottish mini tuber producer TLC Potatoes. ‘Collin Blackwell has helped us enormously to learn the skill’, Åsmund is still grateful to the Scot for his efforts. Ratusznik built the lab as a box-within-a-box in the old tool storage facility on the Bjertnæs family farm. The climate in the lab can be fully regulated. For example, overpressure has been created inside, so that the air flow always goes out and any potential germs are not sucked in. ‘In addition, the air is cleaned internally via high-quality filters and the departments are separated from each other so that the entire lab doesn’t have to be cleared in the event of contamination’, the scientist tells us. After cutting the vitro plants, he breeds the new plants in petri dishes. ‘We first did this in higher jars but on Jacob’s advice, we opted for petri dishes, because the plants then develop a better root system in the growing medium’, Ratusznik says. In order to keep the different varieties well separated and to further minimise the production process, the Polish scientist has developed a track-and-trace system. ‘This allows us to trace the seed potato cultivation process back to which mother plant we used. We can also link that to the system of ware potato cultivation’, he says proudly. ‘In the 800 m2 greenhouse, we plant the cuttings deep in the pots with peat to improve the availability of moisture. So it’s important that they have a good root system. Then we cover the small pots with plastic, placing the white side below and the black side above. This gives them a quick and strong start. When the plants are big enough, we transfer them to a larger poly tray, where they’ll come to full maturity. We can place 508 bags on a special pallet. The harvest is then done manually, whereby we feed the bags to an inspection table via a conveyor belt’, he outlines the process.
In the field, it’s Mart Kamping (26) who is in charge. He says that the mini tubers are planted with a special mini tuber planting machine. ‘This year, we’ll use last year’s harvest of our own PB2 seed for the first time as seed potatoes for ware potato cultivation. We aim at cultivating disease-free user seed. We do this by following strict protocols. We expect that a young generation of seed potatoes from our own production will be cheaper than the seventh generation seed potatoes in the Norwegian market’, is the agronomist’s calculation. ‘Because our focus is on healthy seed potatoes, we want to completely separate the seed potato cultivation from the ware potato cultivation in the future. We can then use clean boxes and a separate planter and harvester for the seed potato cultivation. Because we grow high quality ware potatoes, diseases such as Erwinia, Silver scurf and Black dot should not be present on the seed potatoes. One of Jacob’s recommendations is to always use clean boxes to keep the seed potatoes free from disease’.
Norway has a short growing season, with very long days in the summer. ‘This means that everything has to be right in order to achieve a good quality yield’, says Kamping, He tells us that in the region where the farm is located there are many relatively small plots. ‘The average plot size is 2 hectares. This requires the necessary logistical adjustments to properly manage the cultivation’, he says. Before the seed potatoes go into the ground in their white-dot stage, there are stones to be removed. This is necessary because the diverse soil type on the various plots consist of a mix of clay, loam, sand and stones. ‘After that, at the end of March, we can start with the early varieties, which we grow under plastic so that we can harvest them early. Sixty days after planting we’re already harvesting the early varieties. The later varieties need an average of eighty growing days. The aim is to have all the potatoes planted by the end of May and harvested by the beginning of September at the latest. We use big seed for the cultivation of baby potatoes. There are two reasons for using big tubers. They give more stems per tuber and thus form the basis for the development of many small tubers. In addition, the coarse seed that we treat with Maxim, a pesticide against Rhizoctonia that turns the seed potatoes red, are therefore quite easy to pick up during the harvest, for we definitely don’t want any mother tubers to end up in storage. That’s why we have three men on the harvester to pick them out. To prevent tuber damage, we harvest the baby potatoes directly into boxes, before taking them to our 1,700 ton box storehouse. In addition, we have another storehouse of around 700 tons at the packaging station’, Kamping explains. ‘During the growing season, irrigation is the basis of our success. We must ensure that sufficient air remains in the ridge, but also that, on the one hand, the ridge remains sufficiently wet to keep growth going and, on the other, to prevent scabies developing. The moment of haulm killing is entirely determined by the type of grading. In order to have a maturing crop by the end of July, when harvesting starts, we give the potato crop a maximum of 45 units of nitrogen at the base’, he enthusiastically explains. At the moment, they grow 100 hectares themselves. In addition, they also work together with a few other growers, who together grow 27 hectares and often store them on their own farms. These growers visit Kamping during the growing season to monitor both crop development and quality. Another important focus of attention in cultivation is keeping the plots healthy. To this end, the farmer annually sows green manure crops to improve the organic matter content and the soil fertility of the plots.
At the packaging station, Lars adds that they have deliberately invested in an optical grading machine. ‘After washing and brushing the tubers, we not only want to select the unsuitable ones, but also grade as finely as possible.’ That’s why there are as many as five exits behind the grader to be able to pack the potatoes per size. This gives a nice uniform picture of the various packaging that the company offers.
In order to promote the Moraine potatoes in the market, in addition to providing impeccable quality with the same taste all year round, the company focuses on the locally-grown potatoes. ‘We want to take our vision to the shop. That’s why we put our information on the packaging, so that the consumer can communicate with us. Through this channel, we heard that consumers are surprised that there are so many potatoes in the packaging. The packaging with 650 grams of baby potatoes sells at 2.90 euros, which is more expensive than a bag of 2 kilograms, but they are tastier and there’s sufficient to feed four to five people. To draw extra attention to our product, as a boost, we had an old 1964 MF tractor refurbished and painted in our house-style colours. By placing the tractor in the shop and also preparing our potatoes there, consumers can get to know the delicious taste of our product. That boosts our sales. In addition, we share recipes with our customers because it’s in the shop that they choose a product, so you have to make sure that you offer the right information’, Åsmund says in Meny’s local shop.
Looking to the future, the dream of the Bjertnæs and Hoel families is to be able to have Norwegian potatoes on the shelves twelve months a year. ‘With a current potato turnover of around 4 million euros, we are well on the way, but we’re not there yet. We’re still looking for potato varieties that do well in storage. Gathering more knowledge and experience is something that will never stop’, emphasises Åsmund. ●
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