Every restaurant owner, every supermarket and every retailer who wants to be sure of the quality of his strawberries knows that he has to be in the north of the Kempen. The ‘Hoogstraten strawberry’ approaches scientific perfection in shape, taste, shine and firmness.
“The bar is set extremely high,” says Hans Vanderhallen, director of Coöperatie Hoogstraten. “And 180 growers are doing everything they can to achieve it.”
The name ‘Hoogstraten strawberry’ doesn’t just ring a bell in our country, it is known all over Europe as a top strawberry. She didn’t just get that reputation, it’s a story that goes back to the first half of the last century. First protagonist: Hoogstraten himself. The climatic and geographical conditions for a strawberry are nowhere better: the nights are cold and when it is warm, it is really warm. “And you have sandy soils here – important, because they don’t retain the heat for long at night and a strawberry plant likes that,” Hans Vanderhallen, director of Coöperatie Hoogstraten, tells Het Laatste Nieuws .
Coöperatie Hoogstraten is the second important factor in the journey to the top. Since its foundation in 1933, it has been the place where all strawberries from the region are supplied and where they are sold on the clock in the morning to leave for the recipient straight away. The ‘export’ track was launched soon after its foundation. “But then there had to be strict quality standards, the Cooperative thought,” explains Vanderhallen. “To put our strawberry on the map, we had to strive for perfection.”
Key to success: consequence
Perfection is not something you achieve just like that and various initiatives have been set up. There was an agricultural and horticultural school where you could learn the trade, and Proefcentrum Hoogstraten was established in the Meerle district. “Meanwhile, they come from all over the world to look at that Test Center”, Vanderhallen knows. “All knowledge is here under one roof. In terms of cultivation techniques, biological control, research into varieties, everything.” Information officers from the Research Center then return to the field with that knowledge.
Growers still identify with the cooperative. They realize that their own identity is only so strong because they are in the group
“Quality is everything”, emphasizes Vanderhallen again. “A grower picks his strawberries, immediately puts them in the refrigerator and transports them the same evening to the Cooperative. There they are inspected for the first time, and again the next morning, just before the clock goes off. a fragile product, a lot can go wrong. The key to our success is consistency. No compromises on quality.” If all goes well, a strawberry can already be in your shopping cart 24 hours after being picked.
Many own identities, one cooperative
About 180 growers meet all quality requirements. One does it with ultramodern techniques, the other still in the traditional way. “That producers are adopting their own identity is indeed something that happens more often than in the past,” Vanderhallen told VILT in an earlier interview . “We are also collaborating to some extent: with an app you can access the profile of the grower via the code on our strawberries. In this way we give the grower a face. But today this is not happening to the detriment of the collective. Growers still identify with the cooperative. They realize that their own identity is only so strong because they are in the group.”
Since 2019, the Coöperatie Hoogstraten has taken this even further. “With strawberries, we allow buyers to choose from which grower they purchase the products,” explains Vanderhallen. “In addition to the price on the clock, a surplus has to be paid that goes directly to the grower. Buyers are willing to pay that surplus because, for example, they are very satisfied with the quality of a certain grower or because they have built up a good relationship with that grower. In this way we ensure that everyone is in the same block, but also that the block becomes stronger.”
Whoever stands out in terms of quality – and that is appreciated by the buyer – will be rewarded. This also provides an incentive for other growers to continue to focus on quality. “I call this individualism that benefits the collective,” concludes Vanderhallen. In 2020, 40,000 people from all over Europe scanned the code, more than 2,000 of them also left a message thanking the grower, a fifth of them from England and France.
With those 180 growers, it is now all hands on deck. Due to the warm weather of last weekend, the ripening of the strawberries has started to catch up on a massive scale. If you are still looking for inspiration for a dish or a drink with strawberries: this is the place to be!