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Thanks to a dreamer, thinker, and doer, Cerescon conquers the entire asparagus world from Heeze

The white gold, the asparagus, is a seasonal vegetable, available for approximately twelve weeks in the spring until 24 June. This is a period that many people look forward to with a mouthful of anticipation. At the moment, cutting asparagus is still primarily a job that requires people. And those people are increasingly hard to find. As a solution to this problem, the company Cerescon, from the Brainport region, built an autonomous asparagus harvesting machine that detects the ripe asparagus already under the ground. "With this, we can preserve asparagus cultivation in Western Europe," states Thérèse van Vinken, co-founder and manager of finance, marketing & sales at Cerescon.

 

Cutting asparagus is selective harvesting. In doing so, you harvest only that part of the crop that is large enough or ripe, Van Vinken explains. "You have to see when the head is almost coming out of the soil. That's when the asparagus is at its best." Often during those 12 weeks, migrant workers come to the asparagus fields to stitch them. But due to changes in the law, those seasonal workers are becoming fewer and fewer. Neighboring Germany is also struggling with this problem. "Last year in Germany, 19 percent of the acreage was not harvested. Because they just couldn't get people. So that's a huge loss."

On your plate within 36 hours

Some growers are thinking about moving their fields to cheap-labor countries. Van Vinken: "That would be a shame. You want to organize the harvest as close as possible. Asparagus that is on your plate within 36 hours is simply the tastiest."

The idea for the machine came about during a family party, Vinken explains. Her brother-in-law Marc Vermeer, asparagus grower, challenged his brother and her partner Ad, machine builder for ASML and Philips among others: "Now you've been building machines all your life and never done anything useful, wouldn't it be time?" An asparagus harvesting machine would be very useful in Marc's eyes. Ad picks up the gauntlet and starts looking for something unique to build. "Something that you can protect with a patent. Because if you can't, it won't get you anything in the end," says Van Vinken.

Ad found that uniqueness through a comment from Marc that you should be able to ‘see’ asparagus underground, she continues. "'Why’, we asked. Marc replied that the asparagus discolors and blooms once above ground. You want to get ahead of that because the quality is much better if you harvest it just before it comes out of the ground." The price difference for better quality is really huge, Van Vinken adds: "That can go up to a factor of two or three."

At the kitchen table in Heeze, the Vermeer brothers' voyage of discovery begins. Ad first tries a so-called ground-penetrating radar, a technique that he has patented. Van Vinken: "But with radar, the asparagus could be seen, but the resolution was too low." A subsequent attempt used radiofrequency radiation from the side of the bed. Even with that, the resolution was insufficient, says Van Vinken. "And you couldn't direct the radiation properly in an asparagus bed."

The asparagus as antenna

Eventually, Ad came up with the idea of sending an electrical signal into the ground. "Because the asparagus is 95 percent water, it picks up that electrical signal. In this way, it acts as a kind of antenna." Advanced proximity sensors detect the asparagus underground without touching the asparagus. A technology that Cerescon has patented. Once near the asparagus, you can see the current rise, Van Vinken explains. "This allows us to detect underground where the asparagus is." The coordinates of the asparagus go to the stabbing robot so it knows where to stab. "Then we 'dunk' that asparagus onto a conveyor belt. With lots of sand to keep it from getting damaged."

Finally, the machine plugs the hole. An important step, Van Vinken argues. "Because if there is a hole then the next asparagus grows crooked. Which doesn't help the quality of your asparagus."

Initially, Van Vinken did not interfere with her husband and his brother's project. "But put a machine builder together with an asparagus grower, and a lot of things happen besides creating a business." When a contract was awarded to a large company, she took action. "Where is that money going to come from? Who's going to pay for that?" As a freelancer, Van Vinken has extensive experience in project management and marketing, among other fields. She decides to help. For a few months, she thinks.

Dreamer, thinker, and doer

The three turned out to be a good team. Marc is the 'dreamer' with the experience from practice, Ad is the 'thinker' of a solution, and Van Vinken is the 'doer' with her organizational talent. They also find a local investor, Welten, who wants to make the dream come true. In addition, Van Vinken manages to get a subsidy from Metropoolregio Eindhoven and one from the Rijksdienst voor Ondernemend Nederland (RVO). Because they complement each other, the three of them decide to continue. In early December 2014, the three of them register as a company.

One week later fate strikes. Marc dies suddenly at the age of 51 from meningitis. It is partly due to the widow's reaction that Ad and Van Vinken finally decide to continue: "She saw us in the hospital and the first thing she said was, 'You guys have to continue with that machine because that's what he was constantly talking about.'"

In the first weeks after Marc's death, both actually want to stop. Van Vinken: "Also because Marc was our link to the asparagus world. If I'm completely honest, the only thing I knew about asparagus was how to prepare it. I had never cut asparagus before, didn't even know then that there are different varieties and what those beds look like."

Knowledge from practice

Nevertheless, they go ahead and Van Vinken sets up a user group, with several growers from the Netherlands and Germany. That user group still functions today. To them, the pair present their ideas. A working machine emerges. "At the time still pulled by a tractor." That idea ultimately proves unprofitable. "Because a tractor costs about 55 to 60 euros per hour with a driver and harvests for about 90 euros each hour. With those 30 euros, you can't recoup a machine of about 300,000 to 400,000 euros."

If more rows could be staked at the same time, it would be a different story. But then there's another problem: "A machine for more rows easily harvests about 50 hectares. But the farmers all had relatively small fields, especially in the Netherlands. They would spend too much time driving from one field to another. We noticed that even the largest grower in the Netherlands was questioning whether that machine would suit him." Considerable thought is again given and an autonomous machine emerges as the solution.

Testing and demonstrating

That change takes the start-up another year. "We had already tested for three seasons. The challenge with asparagus is that the season only lasts 12 weeks. If you want to go to market, you also have to demonstrate during that period. In a demonstration, everything has to go flawlessly. You can't do that if you're testing." From experience, Van Vinken knows that you have to show growers something if you want to convince them. "You won't do that with a PowerPoint presentation. Only with a working demonstration will you win them over."

Because of its modular design, Cerescon could convert the harvester to an autonomous version relatively quickly. By October 2020, the company sells the first three of them. Two to Dutch growers and one machine to a German one. The company is growing from a start-up to a scale-up, Van Vinken says proudly. There are shareholders, twenty people are employed and since July 1, there is a new CEO, Denick Murraij.

Brainport region

Because Van Vinken and Vermeer live and work in the Brainport Eindhoven region, they have a large network there. "There is so much knowledge in this region and there is a huge manufacturing industry. This region helps us tremendously." For example, Van Vinken regularly talks to Piet van der Wielen, program manager of Business at Brainport Development. Or with others within that organization: "If I get stuck on something, I call them. This often opens doors that would otherwise remain closed."

Van Vinken notices that the people who work at Cerescon especially like the fact that "what we think of, just gets built". "You see it a few months later in iron and sand. At a company like ASML, you work on a small piece of a large machine. With us, you learn to build a whole machine. The machine is in our own hall. Everyone works on it. We also always make sure that everyone goes out on the field during the season. Even the financial controller is on the field sometimes - just to have that feeling."

Looking ahead, Van Vinken envisions new selective harvesting robots. For harvesting tomatoes, peppers, or other fruits and vegetables, for example, the one you should not harvest until they are ripe. Van Vinken does have one condition: "No seasonal vegetables next time. Because those 12 weeks are always a race against time."