Noord-Holland has been called the most versatile agricultural area in Europe. The region’s agribusiness dominance stems from generations of family-owned farms and horticulture businesses through which world-class knowledge has been passed down and is continuously refined.

GreenPort Noord-Holland Noord, known as the food garden of north-west Europe, produces a wide variety of vegetables, fruit, flowers and seeds that are exported throughout the Netherlands and beyond. Home to 6500 companies involved in the agricultural sector, it is a hub for agribusiness research. One of its most far-sighted assets is Seed Valley, a cluster of world-leading companies in plant breeding, seed cultivation and processing, to which as much as 70% of the vegetable seeds used worldwide can be directly or indirectly traced.

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As a country, the Netherlands is the second largest exporter of agriculture in the world after the US, a particularly impressive feat considering the US is 237 times the size of the Netherlands. More than 80% of what the country produces is exported.

One of the many things that makes the businesses at Seed Valley and GreenPort stand out, says Noord-Holland vice-governor Jaap Bond, is commitment to R&D investment. “On average, 16% of company turnover goes into research, and more than 20% for some companies,” says Mr Bond. By contrast, overall R&D investment in the Netherlands is 1.84% of GDP.

Enza Zaden, a 77-year-old family business specialising in vegetable breeding and processing, provides a standout example. “About 30% of our budget goes into R&D each year – that’s €70m,” says general manager Jaap Mazereeuw, who represents the third generation in the firm. This research goes toward disease prevention, crop yield, appearance, taste, shelf life, resistance and more.

Innovation centre

Covering 370 hectares, Seed Valley is 40% greenhouses and 40% test fields. “When you look at the combination of the metropolitan area of Amsterdam and the open spaces here in the north of the province, that combination is unique. We don’t have that anywhere else in the Netherlands,” says Theo Meskers, alderman of Hollands Kroon municipality. Mr Mazereeuw adds: “The microclimate here has attracted many companies. Because of all the plant breeding that started here, many companies were able to start and diversify at Seed Valley.”

A tradition of knowledge and innovation is pivotal in developing the crops that will feed millions. A major challenge is keeping up with the pace of change. “To produce good seeds is already a challenge, but to produce good seeds with constant quality every year – in different seasons, varieties and species – is very difficult when we produce internationally,” says Mr Mazereeuw. Enza Zaden develops these seeds for millions of growers and distributors across the globe, in an array of different climates. 

Seed Valley was established as a brand by a cluster of companies in 2008 to strengthen the sector and attract talent to the industry, but many of the businesses there go
back hundreds of years. Bejo Zaden started as a family vegetable breeding business in the late 19th century and now has nearly 1200 employees spread across 30 subsidiaries involved in agricultural production. The area grew as an agribusiness hub, eventually becoming a global exporter. 

“That process started after the Second World War,” says Mr Meskers. “We had to think about how to feed all the people who were living here in the Netherlands but also in western Europe. How could we create a new future for all the agricultural companies after the war?” 

Going global

For Enza Zaden – zaden being the Dutch words for seeds – the answer to this question is not about being multinational, but multilocal. The company now has 42 subsidiaries and three joint ventures across 24 countries in research, marketing and sales. Two-thirds of its 2000 employees work outside the Netherlands. “If you want to be successful with a new vegetable variety, it has to be adapted to local environments,” says Mr Mazereeuw. “That’s why our research is all over the world and the subsidiary management is almost all local. We believe that local people know the customer and the conditions best, and it’s also more sustainable that local people manage the site.”  

Many of Seed Valley’s smaller family-run companies have coalesced through mergers and acquisitions into larger companies, including international ones such as Swiss-based multinational Syngenta. “The Netherlands has a unique infrastructure in terms of knowledge, technology and high-quality services,” says Peter van der Toorn, Syngenta’s global head of breeding for vegetables. “We are talking ‘top tier’ in each of these areas.” UK agribusiness giant Monsanto also operates in Seed Valley.  

The cluster of ‘smart industry’ sectors and suppliers and a business-friendly government are among the factors that brought Israeli-Dutch company Hazera to Seed Valley. A subsidiary of French agricultural co-operative Limagrain Group, Hazera’s Netherlands R&D station specialises in crucifers (cabbage, cauliflower and radishes). And it is expanding: building a new €9m, 10-hectare facility for offices, labs, seed testing and production is planned for completion in the next two years.

“At Hazera we’re combining the agricultural strengths of both Israel and the Netherlands, and this sector expertise is particularly present here. That is why we and Limagrain decided to invest here,” says Hazera marketing communications projects manager Lando van Doorn. 

“What we want to do is contribute to the global supply of vegetables, in the end for the wellbeing of consumers.” Hazera’s products are present in more than 100 markets worldwide.

“This is a historic cradle for the worldwide seed industry,” says Kees Hertogh, global trial network coordinator for breeding at Hazera. “The pre-existing infrastructure and expertise are key reasons for being here – it’s a combination of favourable circumstances and regulations and the dynamism of entrepreneurship.”

Developing talent

One challenge that remains is finding the right talent to staff the facilities. “There are more than 40 companies here, and we need a lot of talented people abroad and from the region,” says Mr Mazereeuw. 

“At Enza Zaden, we have more than 100 vacancies per year.” Fostering talent is aided by what is called the ‘triple helix’, a decades-old alliance between the Dutch government, research institutes and the business community.

In addition to education, the government facilitates fundamental and applied research. Within a 30-minute drive are institutes of applied science and Amsterdam University, at which Seed Valley recently established a plant genetics chair. The Seed Valley foundation, in collaboration with training institutes, offers courses across the discipline.

“The government facilitates new projects; we have very good relations with the province and local governments to invest in this business,” says Rik van Wijk, Hazera’s breeding director for crucifers. “We’re close to the world thanks to Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam and Rotterdam harbours, but [we] also have great IT connectivity. In this region the government sees this expertise and entrepreneurship and does a lot to stimulate it. This is where the public and private work together quite well.”

Growers from Canada to India are able to improve the yield and quality of their food production thanks to the Noord-Holland’s history of expertise in the area, proving that no region is too small to take on global challenges. “This is our motto,” says Mr Meskers. “Global issues, local solutions.”