Cultivators published in Kas Magazine

Published on 16/12/2020

In this edition of Kas Magazine our story about Cultivators company is featured. Special edition about young entrepreneurs in the greenhouse horticulture industry. With a young developing industry as cannabis and hydro lettuce the link to Cultivators was obvious. One day we read that the number of years being active in cannabis is equal to the years of life for dogs; 1 year equals 7 human years.

Sonny Moerenhout, Cultivators: ‘Cultivating plants is completely different from cultivating crops’

Cannabis is on the rise worldwide within horticulture. But knowledge is indispensable to make cannabis production successful in the long term, says Sonny Moerenhout. Together with Pim Molenaars, he founded the company Cultivators, which advises growers, investors and suppliers on the many challenges and opportunities that cannabis cultivation entails. And there are quite a few, says Sonny: “The complexity is too often underestimated.”

He was practically born in the greenhouse, he says. That greenhouse was not in the Westland, but in North Brabant. In Oosteind to be precise, a village between Oosterhout and Dongen. As the son of an eggplant grower, Sonny Moerenhout grew up with horticulture. Still, a “green career” was not his first preference. “My parents left me free in my choices and I was never expected to take over the company. At the time I played soccer at a reasonable level, and I first completed a higher professional education in sports management. I combined soccer and my studies with working in my parents’ greenhouse and gradually noticed that horticulture attracted me more and more. Moreover, I saw that the sector offered many opportunities and not only with an own greenhouse horticulture company.

Cannabis was and is a sensitive topic

Sonny decided to continue his study of plant sciences in Wageningen, where he specialized in greenhouse horticulture. After an internship at a nursery in New Zealand, he started working for fertilizer supplier SQM. To end up with substrate specialist Grodan two years later. “As a consultant I have travelled all over the world,” says Sonny. “A great time, in which I gained a lot of experience and learned a lot about different countries and cultures.” It was also at this time that he first came into contact with the cannabis crop, while traveling to England and Australia. That acquaintance ultimately formed the reason for his specialization, says Sonny. As a business developer, he was given the task at Grodan to set up the international cannabis strategy, together with his current partner Pim Molenaars. But because the subject of cannabis is nevertheless sensitive, these activities were given limited publicity. “It became clear that organizations see opportunities in cannabis but are struggling with legal and social issues. In addition, (medicinal) cannabis is really a different crop in terms of cultivation and quality requirements. ” From his role within Grodan, Sonny was also closely involved in cultivation studies of the Legal Cannabis Coalition (LCC). They have taken great steps with insights into cannabis cultivation. There is still a lot to do within this new industry, and certainly not only in the field of cultivation. That is why Pim and I started independently with Cultivators over a year ago to really help companies in the cannabis sector. We are tackling important aspects such as legislation (compliance) and quality in addition to the cultivation advice for cannabis growers.

Because, says Sonny, sharing knowledge is one thing, using that knowledge in a good way is another. “Here in the Netherlands, we sometimes underestimate how much knowledge we actually have. We are sometimes afraid to share our knowledge, but the fact is that it is often difficult to translate that knowledge into practice. ”Sonny wants to change that with Cultivators. “I am not hesitant to share knowledge with others, especially because the development that is set in motion is going step by step. The implementation of knowledge takes a very long time and as long as you ensure that you keep your knowledge up to date, your input will always be valuable. ”

Ingredients

Within Cultivators, which in addition to cannabis also focuses on hydroponic lettuce, Sonny mainly sees that many investors are involved in these crops. “Those parties have limited knowledge. The cultivation of lettuce on hydroponics, just like cannabis cultivation, does not yet have a standard concept. We support investors and growers in making decisions about projects and day-to-day operations. Everything to ensure that they can be successful not only in the short term, but also in the long term. ” Unlike in regular crops such as bell pepper and tomato, cannabis is mainly grown for its ingredients. “For the time being, production is aimed at medicinal use. But if recreational use also becomes legal in the long term, the market in Europe will only really develop. As much is possible with the ingredients of cannabis. For example, think of drinks and cookies to name a few. That is why it is also important that we show the world what you can do with cannabis. ” Sonny expects that this way of working in cannabis cultivation will also have an influence on the overall mindset within greenhouse horticulture. “I am convinced that we will also be growing products in vegetables with a great focus on ingredients.”

Sonny therefore always first enters a conversation with customers to determine how they can most wisely use their investment. “Is it about the dry flower or is it about extraction? What kind of cultivation system is best? Do you opt for indoor or greenhouse? And are you going for ebb and flow or drip irrigation? We select at the door for suppliers, as it were, so that they have enough information to write specifications. Because if the customer does not know… the greenhouse builder does not know at all. Within the cannabis industry we have seen that great projects hardly got off the ground due to beginner mistakes that could have been avoided. We not only help the investor with this, but also the suppliers because then you also know immediately whether a customer is serious. Because if they do not want to invest a few thousand euros in training and substantiation of their business plan, they will certainly not spend five million to build a greenhouse or an indoor farm. ”

Three parties

Yet there are also experienced growers from other product groups who are seriously looking at switching to cannabis, says Sonny. Although that is not directly a guarantee for success, he believes. “The complexity is too often underestimated. What we see very clearly is that the best running projects are often supported by both people with a horticultural background and a pharmaceutical background and also make use of the knowledge from hobby cultivation or ‘underground’. In the “underground” they can grow plants very well and in horticulture we can grow crops very well. That is completely different. We do not know cannabis plants nearly as well in professional horticulture as, for example, a tomato plant. So we need people who do know that plant through and through. While horticulture knows more about the plant-climate relationship, which is important to guarantee the ultimate quality and therefore ingredients. In addition, it is new for horticulture that the quality aspect from the medicinal side is so leading in production. So you have to bring those three parties together and let them work together to be truly successful. However difficult that is, because they are so different from each other. But we can help with that.

Cultivators therefore offers cultivation consultancy, helps suppliers with the legal set-up of their business, advises on quality requirements from the pharmaceutical industry and also provides technical support. “We want to be the pivot between suppliers and grower, where we can play a significant role before, during and after a project. But the sooner we get involved in a project, the better. Only then can you ensure that those insights are included in the business and project plan, to make well-considered choices possible. One of the difficulties is that cannabis cultivation often has ‘vertical integrated companies’. Where traditional horticulture works with separate breeders, nurseries and growers, the development of the mother plant, the cultivation, the vegetative phase and the flower phase in cannabis are combined within one company. So you are busy with so many aspects, that is not easy. However, this is desirable or necessary due to the applicable laws and regulations. You cannot just move cannabis plants and products from a to b. That therefore requires the necessary organization before starting a project. ”

Gold in hands

Incidentally, the genetics in cannabis are miles behind what horticulture is used to, says Sonny. “Whoever develops an F1 hybrid has gold in his hands.” Yet there is still little movement towards cannabis from the well-known horticultural seed suppliers, Sonny notes. “Those who are working on it now mainly come from the hobby sphere. But I do think that the legalization, recognition of the positive contribution of cannabis in the medical world and the disappearance of the stigma will help the big seed breeders eventually join. By using their own knowledge, but also by making acquisitions. There is really a lot to be gained in genetics, but who will be the first to take the step? ”

A lot of gains can also be made with regard to post harvest, Sonny adds. “After harvesting, you have to dry the product, analyze it and possibly process and package it. That way you can still ruin your entire crop if you don’t do it properly. We are getting more and more questions about this. Until now, we have mainly focused on the suppliers and production side, but we also see opportunities for post-harvest aspects in the near future. Ultimately, the young team of Cultivators is all about being able to contribute to the production of high-quality ingredients ”

From m2 to cm2

It immediately brings the conversation to the central theme of this KAS publication: young talent. Sonny believes that the horticultural sector as a whole is in need of further rejuvenation. “I am still often the youngest when I get somewhere. We therefore need to make the sector more sexy and the new cannabis industry is certainly helping with that. It naturally appeals to the imagination and the opportunities attract young professionals. Many underestimate how far horticulture is already with technology and data applications. We also have to show that much more, because the sector offers so many opportunities for young people in the coming years. In addition, nutrition is becoming increasingly important and so are the ingredients of products. The new generation is working on this more than ever. Cannabis cultivation can be a forerunner in this. We are at the beginning of a shift from kilos per square meter to ingredients per square centimetre. In that regard, it is the right time for young people to step in. As a new generation, they can really make their mark and contribute to changing horticulture worldwide. How cool is that?”

For the time being, cannabis receives little attention in education, Sonny notes. “The product still has a certain stigma and a lot of ignorance around it. That is why we are currently in talks with World Horti Center and Vertify to set up a platform around “compound based cultivation”. Currently, this is mainly cannabis, but in the long term it will relate to more ingredients from horticultural products. Hopefully we will be able to tell more about that soon and we can launch that project in the short term, so that together we can break the stigma attached to cannabis. ” It must also ensure that parties within the sector act more jointly and look less at themselves, says Sonny. “Why have we become so big in horticulture? By tackling things collectively and transparently. The cannabis world has always been closed and it seems everyone wants to keep it that way. Why? Let’s do research together and publish about it. So that everyone benefits from it in the end. ”

Because when it comes to cannabis, there has been relatively little scientific research, says Sonny. “So everything you read on the internet has little or no substantiation. We therefore desperately need each other’s knowledge and experience to turn cannabis into a mature crop. In tomato cultivation, we are all working to realize an extra percentage here and there. But we still have to learn everything in cannabis. There is still a world to be gained. That’s what makes it so interesting. As the Netherlands, we are already a real knowledge country. By continuing to invest in that knowledge, we ensure that we remain the tip of the iceberg. ”

Becoming an Authority

With Cultivators, Sonny has the ambition to grow further in the coming years and to become a leading party in the field of cannabis, but also others with other products. “Leaf crops and herbs on hydroponics are also strong growth markets where we, together with Tim van Hissenhoven, are taking the lead. This sector can be compared to cannabis, because many new, different cultivation systems have not fully crystallized here. Here too we support suppliers, growers and investors to enable success. For cannabis, our focus will mainly be on Europe, because that’s where it all will happen. We are on the eve of tremendous growth in cannabis and we want to become an authority for this crop group in Europe. I expect that we as Cultivators will also participate in projects ourselves. Yes, that demand comes from both the lettuce and cannabis market and we are heading in that direction. ” The Dutch base remains important as far as Sonny is concerned. “North America is currently being looked at a lot, but that is not necessary at all. We have everything here to make cannabis a great success in Europe as well. In that respect, I am also pleased that the Dutch government has opted to speed up the coffee shop experiment. And believe me, all of Europe is watching with us. Because if it becomes a success here in the horticultural country of the Netherlands, more countries will follow.”

Rest moment

His personal ambitions ensure that Sonny is on the road a lot. Although the situation with corona has significantly reduced his flying hours, he thinks he will have to travel the world more often. “Wonderful, I enjoy flying,” says Sonny. “No contact with the outside world for a while, for me that really is a moment of rest. But if you also want to have a private life, you have to plan well. That is why I prefer to get on a plane more often than being away from home for very long periods. ” But it is clear that it is not a nine to five job. “It is hard work. Sometimes there are weeks in which we work seven days. That is part of it, we are in fact still a start-up and have to prove ourselves in the market. ”

Sonny therefore likes to regularly spar with young colleagues from the trade and exchange ideas. “I am part of a Young Executives club together with about thirteen young horticulturists. I get a lot of inspiration from that and it is also good to hear how other peers view things. Those conversations, for example, also led me to take the step to start for myself. ” Sonny therefore considers it essential that young talent continues to seek out and inspire each other in the coming years and that they continue to be given the space to develop themselves. “As Cultivators continues to grow, young talented people will also join. I learned from my parents to always be good to your employees and to give them the opportunity to develop. I have not forgotten that lesson and I will certainly also apply it in our company. So that we seize the opportunities that pass by together and celebrate the successes we achieve together. ”

You can read the original Dutch article by clicking here: open PDF file (NL)


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