Interview Erik Waterman

“The party’s begun, but not everyone’s joined in yet”

“We’re usually at Fruit Logistica in Berlin or skiing. Now, we’re sitting, staring at each other,” jokes Erik Waterman of Waterman Onions in the Netherlands. That was in February. He was referring to the temporarily quiet onion market. Nevertheless, according to him, this dip is normal for the beginning of the year. “It’s never been otherwise. But we usually leave the road at 140km/h (87mph). Last fall, we thundered along at 220km/h (137mph). We had several export weeks of 40,000+ tons/week. Then, you’re quickly disappointed when you have to return to driving the regular 100km/h (62mph).”

“Added to that, growers and asking prices don’t match. You can lower prices, but if farmers’ prices don’t fall, the price has to rise again. Many sorting and packing stations have run out of stock and have had to make additional purchases. I think bale prices will increase rapidly. In any case, the upward journey has begun again. The European sales season is about to begin, although it’ll be gradual. To use a metaphor, the party has begun, but not everyone’s joined in yet,” continues Erik.

“Grower prices were high in autumn last year. If they hadn’t been, sales would probably still be continuing. Sales prices rose sharply due to the large, broad worldwide sales and India’s export stop. Now everything is returning to normal. We have to compete on the world market again. However, farmers’ prices have only fallen slightly. The available onion quantity for the rest of the season is rapidly diminishing too. And farmers are patient. Because what onion grower with good onions wouldn’t wait for better sales opportunities later in the season?”

Import onions are on their way again too. “We import mainly from New Zealand, South Africa, and Egypt, with mostly red onions from the latter. We consider imported onions as a good addition to the Dutch range. There’s always room for good quality onions in the retail and trade sectors. And fortunately, we’re able to supply these to our clients year-round. But excellent quality comes at a price. Which clients gladly pay,” Erik explains.

Waterman Onions doesn’t yet optically sort its onions. The company is, however, watching developments in that field closely. “We aren’t pioneers, nor are we lagging. But we want to eventually start using a good, proven method. There are several projects in the Netherlands involving optical sorting. They’ve had their share of problems.”

“They haven’t yet shown excellent, but above all practical, results either. So, there’s still a ways to go. The improvements being made will, however, certainly finally pay off. We’ve planned a 20,000m2 expansion. As soon as we can scale up, we’ll consider how the latest techniques are faring,” Waterman says.

“We are also hard at work with innovative automation projects. These include fully automatic track-and-tracing for storage and processing. We’ve developed an app called StoPro. We want to work in a more data-driven fashion. We want to gain greater insights from data to improve our business processes further. We also want to make predictions and do future analyses. Supply and demand can be linked to production quickly, correctly, and efficiently in this way. So, we have plenty of challenges.”

The company is involved in a new development – the Port of Flevokust near Lelystad, the Netherlands. This container terminal opened in 2018. And it’s undergoing rapid development. That’s thanks to the cooperation between Maersk and some of its clients, including Waterman Onions. Maersk is an end-to-end containerized provider.

“This is a pioneering project. We were the first shipper there, and it took a lot of work to get everything running smoothly and efficiently. But it worked out. Now inland waterway transport, especially to Rotterdam, is increasingly financially successful. It’s also providing considerable environmental gains. We use it a lot,” says Erik.

Waterman Onions saw its sales rise dramatically in 2020. That’s thanks, in part, to onions becoming more popular. But that’s also due simply to the growth in the world’s population. Many of these people use more onions in their dishes than Western Europeans. “To get everything to all our global clients, on time, was, naturally, a huge challenge.”

“Logistics is one of an export company’s most important aspects. It was squeaking and creaking, but we made it work. We’re anticipating the coming year with great optimism. We, along with our suppliers, clients, and employees, will create something great,” Erik concludes. (Author: Izak Heijboer ©