From entrepreneur to pioneer in Dutch horticulture

On July 1, Eef van Zanten will celebrate his 70th birthday and present the WPS relay to the new generation. Eef van Zanten has realized great innovations in horticulture over the last 50 years. With his smart vision and practical approach, he managed to conquer the market. In the following, WPS takes you into the life of this pioneer in Dutch horticulture.

70 years
On December 12, 1951, Evert van Zanten was born between the greenhouses on Heenweg in the heart of Western Norway. After primary school, he tries his hand at the higher gardening school, but Eef quickly gives up. He is not averse to hard work, so he starts working for a farmer.

A good service time on Curaçao
Eef spends his military service on Curaçao, where he experiences a great contrast with regard to Western Norway. ‘There on Curaçao it turned out that I could shoot well. After a while, the officers let me shoot with a gun. Eventually, I became a military shooter. My sporting achievements were worth more to me than entertainment. ‘

Start innovations
Back in Western Norway, Eef meets Gerrina and a few years later they get married. Eef had meanwhile started working at a nursery and for a short time he worked for a contractor who went bankrupt. Then begins a new phase for Eef. Instead of searching elsewhere, he started his own business in 1982. Together with Frans and another colleague, they set up Le-En-Za. The colleague traveled, but together with Frans he did tasks for growers, such as filling boxes with vegetables.

At that time, Eef is already innovating, albeit on a small scale. He is constantly looking for ways to make things better and easier. He invents a cart on which he can take the boxes for the vegetables.

Eef: ‘You could also ask the breeder for those boxes, but then you always had to get up to get them.’ And then Eef and his partner take the boxes with them on a cart made by them. ‘It was actually a very simple invention. But it made the job a lot easier. ‘ A competing company also sees something in it and immediately begins to emulate the wagon.

Stone wool mats
Eef and Frans go a new way. They are starting to supply stone wool slabs on a large scale to growers throughout the region. Eef and Frans jump in the right hole at just the right time. Growers are switching en masse from soil to rock wool, and the business is growing rapidly to 75 people. With the stone wool boards, Eef and Frans not only have a good product in their hands, it is also the key to useful information. ‘Because we worked in rock wool, we were told what was going on in horticulture and what was going on.

In a short time, Eef and Frans are launching three inventions that will change horticulture forever: plugs, gutters and conveyor belts. The company Le-en-Za now becomes Preforma.

glue plugs
In 1988, Eef and Frans started making glue plugs. They were made of polyurethane mixed with potting soil. We poured that mixture into the trays. We then put the plants in the glue plug so they could grow in it. That way you could later pull the plant out with the roots without amputating it. ‘

With the advent of glue plugs, it is easier for growers to automate. ‘A machine could pull those plugs out in no time’. Technology in the horticulture sector is advancing rapidly at that time. Eef: ‘This was partly due to collegiality in horticulture. Breeders gave each other a behind-the-scenes look. As a result, the sector as a whole made rapid progress. ‘

In the past, gerberas grew on ridges. But they saw that the growers went over to gutters to collect the excess water. But when the grower puts the stone wool boards on the gutters, it quickly turns out that it does not work. “When a rock wool board gets wet, there is a high risk of contamination from one plant to another. Infections spread quickly through the water, and before you know it, the entire greenhouse is infected. It also happened in the case of the gerberas. ‘

“We can do this better,” thought Eef and Frans, and they started making gutters with raised bottoms. ‘This allowed the water to pass under the rock wool slabs and the rock wool did not get wet.’ Only this innovation did not work for the gerbera, but considering the progress – a gutter machine was made that manufactures the steel gutters. A major advantage of using gutters is that gardeners can use them to determine the slope themselves. The first success was in strawberry growing. They already used zinc gutters, but zinc in your water is not good for the plants.

After 10 years of success with strawberries, Eef came in contact with a tomato grower who experienced a lot of problems from the soaked soil during his cultivation. The two of Preforma show the grower the strawberry greenhouses with the hanging gutters and the man is immediately ready. ‘He also decided to hang the tomatoes higher and immediately ordered gutters from us. Because the water was now collected, the soil in the greenhouse also became a lot less moist. It was a good start. After that, the competitors also started making gutters and we later merged with Metazet and became FormFlex.

Conveyor systems
The third invention that Frans and Eef are successful with is the plant transport system. “It simply came to our notice then. But we made that invention amazing. ‘

Eef accidentally came to breeder Valstar in Roosendaal for a project. “I have something good for you,” says this breeder. And he shows his latest invention. “He had put a seat belt in a gutter. He was able to get the seat belt moving using a machine. That way he could transport those plants’. At least in theory it should be. But the system keeps going down, and Mr Valstar does not know how to solve it.

Eef immediately sees what is wrong. »A gutter made of plastic is unstable. The system needed a steel gutter. ‘ Fortunately for Eef and Frans, Mr. Valstar has had enough of messing around with his own invention. “Take that junk with you,” he says. Eef takes all the parts of the machine with him, and when he gets home, he starts using it. And indeed: with a steel gutter it does. ‘I went back to that breeder in Roosendaal and told him we had made his invention work.’

The grower immediately asks to have 25,000 meters of gutters fitted with seat belts in my garden. It’s a lot, but it makes it a perfect pilot project to see if it also works on a larger scale. With the condition of a percentage of the profit, there is plenty of room for Eef and Frans to make the system a success.

Eef: ‘The system proved to be a breakthrough in potted plants. When you have such a transport system, you as a grower can produce more plants per square meter. This in turn leads to lower heating costs for the room. The more plants you have in a room, the less effort it takes to keep the room at the right temperature. In other words: then you have less heating costs per. plant. ‘

Eef and Frans set up Walking Plant Systems (WPS) and do not leave it alone on conveyor belts. “We were quickly asked if we could also make delivery systems, and in order to be able to sort the plants properly, we made a camera system. Those cameras scanned the plants for the number of flowers, the color of the flowers or the length of the plant. ‘

During the same period, Eef develops his career. ‘It’s a small plastic holder. It allows you to transport plants. The carrier has two advantages: You can easily install a roof, and it provides more stability for the plant on the conveyor belt. We call it an OPD: Oval Plant Carrier. ‘

Frans and Eef therefore install transport systems and cameras at the growers. In addition, they label all potted plants with an electronic label. ‘All the characteristics of such a system, which the camera detects, were then registered in that mark.’ They even apply for a patent on the Career. They decide to keep the invention to themselves and not share it with others. ‘Only we make them. WPS still does that today. ‘

From innovation to head of WPS in De Lier
Meanwhile, Frans decides to stop working, and eventually a number of innovations are sold and the shares transferred. Thereafter, Eef remains primarily involved in WPS as a leader and director. In 2018, Eef handed over the management of WPS to its daughter Digna. It was certainly not clear that she would become the director of her father’s company.

‘When I was about fifteen years old, I could see it in my mind. Who’s talking here, Digna or Eef? My father sometimes joked: ” Maybe you’ll become a director later. ” But when Digna years later shows that she has the ambition to take over WPS, this plan was not immediately decided. ‘My father always said,’ I do not necessarily want one of my daughters to take over WPS. ‘ He never pressured me. Rather the opposite. ‘

Digna: ‘I am very proud of what my father has set up and that I can continue to make innovations. My goal is fully automated horticulture. I want to completely relieve the growers in automation and logistics. That way, they have both private and business time for other things. ‘

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