Jeroen Bakker and Engel Louwes: looking for Innovative strategies for Potato Farming in India

Potato sorting in India

Jeroen Bakker and Engel Louwes: Accelerating India's Agricultural Flywheel with Innovative Potato Farming Strategies

Abril 08, 2024

One of them is in the middle of his career. The other is already retired. Both are embarking on a new adventure. In a country that is a feast for the eyes, but where they are even more impressed by the openness of the people. In India, a flywheel must be set in even faster motion, thanks to better varieties as well as improved cultivation techniques. Because by 2050, the yield needs to have doubled to 100 million tonnes.

It can’t be merely a coincidence that a Dutch racing driver is currently driving for Mahindra Racing. Nyck de Vries from Uitwellingerga, a village near Sneek and Joure, represents the team in the highest electric class, Formula E. An Indian team bearing the same name as HZPC’s joint venture in India: Mahindra-HZPC. But Mahindra -HZPC are in their own race against the clock.

Incredibly enthusiastic

For much of his life, Engel Louwes (68) worked at HZPC. Together with his colleagues, he travelled the world introducing new varieties. Years ago, Commercial Director Herman Verveld asked him to help set up the market for table and crisp potatoes in Poland.

Engel Louwes:
 

"It was supposed to take four years; it turned into 14. Last year, I retired. So, why is Engel is taking on this new adventure in India? Four years ago, I became increasingly familiar with more modern cultivation techniques through a Polish grower who I befriended."

"He grew one hundred and fifty hectares under reel irrigation but switched completely to drip irrigation with fertigation. On this farm, I am responsible for a number of fertigation projects."

Jeroen Bakker:
 

"Much higher yields with better quality, using less water, less fertilisers and fewer crop protection products. But the differences in yields between different fertigation regimes are also enormous. It is always a matter of customisation.’ You cannot copy knowledge and technology, as is, from the Netherlands. It’s the same with the varieties, too."

Sixteen years ago, he started as a breeder at HZPC Research in Metslawier. Five years ago, he made the switch from supermarket potatoes to potatoes that go to consumers in the traditional manner. Intended for areas where people face hunger and where the climate is often challenging.

 

Engel Louwes and Jeroen Bakker

Engel Louwes and Jeroen Bakker

Jeroen Bakker:
 

"Years ago, we introduced several varieties to India. We have now come to a point where we are looking in greater and greater detail at what they need there. Varieties that suit the climate, the duration of growing season, and the needs of the chain."

For much of his life, Engel Louwes (68) worked at HZPC. Together with his colleagues, he travelled the world introducing new varieties. Years ago, Commercial Director Herman Verveld asked him to help set up the market for table and crisps potatoes in Poland.

Reincarnation

When Engel first stepped off the plane in New Delhi, he was overcome by a feeling of extreme crowding.

Engel Louwes:
 

"So many cars on the road. But stoplights are unknown to them. No need, because everything and everyone finds their way just fine. But my fondest memories of that first encounter are still of the people. So incredibly friendly and tolerant. And although they may not even need us, they do greatly appreciate our coming to help."

Jeroen agrees with what Engel says. For instance, after a business meeting once, he stayed in a hotel where the participants discussed the day’s meeting but also talked about faith and reincarnation. 

Jeroen Bakker:
 

"All in a very open way."

Families move from country to country 

 

Harvesting potatoes by hand.

Harvesting potatoes by hand.

The differences in culture and climate may be obvious, but other things are just the same as in the Netherlands. For example, when it comes to business decisions.

Engel Louwes:
 

"In the Netherlands, growers only become convinced of new techniques if they can see them with their own eyes. The same applies to Indian farmers. It is up to Engel and Jeroen to convince them. The potential is there. Standard, 50-kilo potato sacks are still manually filled and lifted onto the carts."

Jeroen Bakker:
 

"I haven’t seen a forklift yet. Although they themselves say that this will soon be a thing of the past. The tilling of the soil and the planting are already mechanised, but further mechanisation of the chain is sometimes a sensitive subject."

Engel Louwes:
 

"Because growers can also see that whole families move from country to country to harvest potatoes. If a machine takes this over, they lose their jobs. These are important factors to consider."

90 days, 40 degrees

Both men also make it a priority to look at the bigger picture. As does their colleague Davinder Singh, Chief Executive Officer of Mahindra-HZPC. The calculation is simple. The demand for processing (including crisps and fries) in the country that – after China – is already the second largest producer of potatoes is set to double. Of the 100 million tonnes planned, 25 million tonnes are needed for processing.

Currently, the volume for processing is 2.8 million tonnes. Just over a tenth of what it should ultimately be. So, the yields right are now far too low. Just as in the case of increasing quality, the change in yields must come about by way of much improved water management and the development of much more efficient fertigation strategies.

Because more land is not becoming available. Moreover, the time frame for potato growing is limited. After the cultivation times for rice and wheat (both 120 days), there are actually only 90 days left in which to grow potatoes.

Engel Louwes:
 

"The climate also imposes its own limitations on the timing."

Engel and Jeroen are, therefore, looking for other solutions. Jeroen’s mission is to introduce the right varieties. By selection in the Netherlands, among other things.

Engel Louwes:
 

"In 2023, another six new varieties were sent in-vitro (healthy plants in plastic tubes). Importing mini tubers is not permitted. Although, of course, this would make our job a lot easier. Introducing the right varieties requires the right infrastructure, so that you can perform proper testing."

Fields underwater

Jeroen Bakker:
 

"The varieties must prove themselves. This means first growing them ourselves and then, soon thereafter, letting the Indian farmers grow them. They should reap the benefits of our work. It also makes sense to have the varieties grown locally as soon as possible, since they have a good logistics system."

Engel Louwes:
 

"To exploit the potential of the varieties, we are now also working on providing growing advice based on hard data.’ Data also proves the usefulness of drip irrigation and fertigation. In India, they are mainly familiar with flooding – covering the fields with water. With this method, much of the fertilisers and crop protection products wash away into the soil. Or even worse, into the drinking water. But water management is also becoming an increasingly important spearhead in India. Residents are now required to save water."

100 million tonnes

Engel Louwes:
 

"That is why drip irrigation combined with fertigation is a great solution. And not only because you don’t waste water and fertilisers. But with it, you also give potato plants the right amount of fertiliser, in the right place, and at the right time. And this is what we want to show the growers."

"That this can help them. We mainly do this together with the processing industry – companies including McCain, Agristo, Simplot, LambWeston as well as a number of larger, local processors. Together with them, we set up test fields. And, with the government. They have expressed an ambition to grow 100 million tonnes of potatoes by 2050. Double the yield right now."

Narendra Modi

Things can also move fast in India. That’s a fact. The government can make quick decisions, especially when it wants something done. Gujarat is a good example of this. Here, they had a big water problem. India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi, was the Chief Minister here at the time. By switching from flooding to drip irrigation, they transformed potato farming in just a few years. This produced higher yields and better quality.

21 million views

Jeroen Bakker:
 

"Another example of how fast things can move in India is a recently shared Facebook post published by Mahindra-HZPC. The message involved the Memphis variety. In no time at all, it was viewed a whopping five million times. You can reach very many people in India very quickly."

In the end, this post was viewed 21 million times and liked by 105,000 people. Potatoes are grown in the milder winter months in India, especially in the state of Punjab, which is in northern India, close to the Himalya Mountains. In late October, the mercury here still rises up to 40 degrees. The largest potato variety is Santana. This variety thrives on a shorter day.

Jeroen Bakker:
 

"It is a completely different crop than in the Netherlands, but the HZPC acreage is steadily increasing; Colomba, in particular, has grown enormously in recent years."

Jeroen now also expects a lot from Norman (crisps), Invictus and Travolta (both fries), among others, which were all sent over last year. And they are exploring opportunities to breed even more specifically for India.

Landowners abroad

Besides the climate, the short days, and the modern techniques that are in their infancies, there is one more serious obstacle.

Jeroen Bakker:
 

"The owners of the land here live in New York or other places outside the country. Indian farmers may only rent the land they work. If you own the land yourself, you can work based on a long-term vision, assuring the proper rotations. Now, though, there are times when a grower doesn’t know whether he can use a plot of land again the next year. Consequently, there is a lot of overcropping on the land. This, among other things, results in much of the yield being lost."

Jeroen Bakker:
 

"And the growers themselves have no storage. They are completely at the mercy of the prices at that moment."

Racing driver Nyck de Vries

Jeroen and Engel are becoming more and more familiar with India and with its potato sector. With their knowledge and experience, they are the next links in a machine that is strengthening the potato sector as a whole. In a country that is already steadily and fully developing. Jeroen and Engel are not trying to reinvent the wheel but rather to accelerate the momentum of existing Indian flywheel.

So that Mahindra-HZPC can develop the potato sector at a speed similar to the speed with which the Frisian racing driver Nyck de Vries does his laps for the Indian racing team. Jeroen and Engel’s wins, however, are not represented by trophies. They are represented in food security and in providing a better livelihood for Indian growers.

Davinder Singh’s Dream

As Jeroen and Engel praise the ‘openness’ of the Indian people, Davinder Singh does the same for HZPC. The chief executive officer of Mahindra-HZPC is proud of the nearly 10-year relationship, and step by step, he is getting closer to his dream.

Davinder Singh:
 

"Few companies understand the challenge of growing crops in India. And for us, it is also sometimes difficult to explain. You have to experience it. Fortunately, HZPC really gets this. They have a global vision for potato farming."

"Years ago, Jappie van Dijk helped us set up better field agronomy and Tom van der Kooij helped us produce mini tubers. And everyone here in India loves Herman Verveld, who heads the SBDA Europe business area, which includes Mahinda-HZPC. Everyone knows him. He unites, motivates, and supports our strategy."

Farmer welfare is more important than market share

Davinder Singh:
 

"We need one another. The Indian market has doubled in the last 25 years. And in the next 25, it will more than double again. Processing, in particular, is growing incredibly fast. For this, we need better varieties and better cultivation techniques. Jeroen and Engel are helping us take that next step."

"Ultimately, our efforts must go beyond the growth of market share. We are focused on creating a high-value Indian potato sector. This development is accelerating with new and differentiated products and technologies. Because these lead to more opportunities for all the stakeholders in the value chain."

"All in all, we remain focussed on the bigger picture. This includes high yields – and profitability – for all Indian farmers. And Mahindra-HZPC as the most trusted seed potato company. Bringing all this together is my dream. And we can realise these dreams together. Processing must increase from 2.8 million tonnes to 25 million tonnes."

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