In the past five years, the sale of organic vegetable young plants to professional growers has been booming. “Organic products are becoming more and more popular. We have been producing organic plants for 20 years and in just five years, our organic production went from 7 to 22%,” explains Didier Cadiou, general director of French propagating company Emeraude Plants.

Expansion in young plants

The Emeraude Plants adventure began in 1991 when Cadiou took over the family farm in Saint-Méloir-des-Ondes. Starting from a 2ha greenhouse, they’ve grown to over 6ha of greenhouses, making the company one of the five largest propagators in France.

Also, at the head of two other companies, Arc’At Plants and Atlantique Plants Bio, the group’s total production area of vegetable plants spreads over 9ha. Its annual production is 150 million plants – winter vegetables for the most part.

Shift in consumption

Nowadays consumption is not only evolving in favour of organic products. Some vegetables, although not very popular a few years ago, are gaining popularity among consumers. “Squash is a vegetable that has become more important in recent years. Before, we were producing just a little, while today, the demand for plants has strongly increased,” says Cadiou.

However, it is important not to draw hasty conclusions regarding the impact of fresh vegetable consumption on the production of vegetable plants. “We note a shift in consumption, with a decreased interest in fresh vegetables in favour of processed vegetables. Previously the average household took more time to cook. These days they consume fresh vegetables on weekends and prefer frozen and processed products during the week. Therefore, celeriac is now consumed less as a fresh product, but it continues to be eaten as a processed product.”

Producers seeking technicality and segmentation in plants

Besides consumption, the needs of organic vegetable growers have also evolved. “As far as tomatoes are concerned, for example, in terms of agronomy professionals now look for high-end plants with a certain level of technicality such as the capacity to flower very quickly. From a commercial point of view, we want a segmentation of the market. TOVs still make up most of the volume, but the diversification which leads to the production of cherry and cocktail tomatoes, as well as tomatoes with an atypical colour, continues to take up market shares,” explains Cadiou.

Ambitions in terms of sustainable development

Sustainable development also holds a significant place in the company’s strategy. “We now have a water treatment system that results in minimal water waste. We only provide the plant with what it needs to grow, and we therefore avoid waste. Integrated pest management is a tool that we continue to develop. As far as peat is concerned – the substrate used for our organic production to replace rock wool which is banned – we try to reduce its use in favour of other inputs such as wood fibre. This is to limit the impact that peat extract can have on the environment.”

According to Cadiou, the production of organic vegetable plants today faces two major challenges. “The first has an agronomic dimension. All production systems will have to be reinvented, so they can be free of chemical crop protection. The amount of chemicals used is really small in plant production anyway. But what is certain is that biocontrol will have to be used in an ‘industrially agronomic’ way. We will have to find other alternatives, as the consumer wants.

“And of course, the second challenge will concern energy. The carbon footprint of our greenhouses will have to be neutral, or even negative.” –