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“Energy prices, virus pressure have changed tomato cultivation” Export

“Energy prices and preventative measures for viruses have changed tomato cultivation,” begins Tom Verdonck of Tomeco. “It’s become quite tricky to guarantee stable delivery.”

Tomeco is a partnership between several Belgian growers that cultivate exclusively for Coöperatie Hoogstraten. The group’s main crop is still tomatoes, though, in recent years, a new flavoring has been in the works: the Tomélon mini watermelon. “We started playing around with this a few years ago. It perfectly combines with growing tomatoes.”

“We began in 2020 and set up a trial crop in 2021. In the year that followed, we built on that. Is there a demand? Is there a future, and how will we market it? We saw pretty quickly that people liked the size and sweet flavor. After a good season in 2022, we scaled up again this year,” Tom says.

Tomeco quickly noticed that these mini watermelons held their own well against the larger watermelons from Southern Europe. “They’re small, compact watermelons we can grow with far less water than the traditional ‘regular’ watermelons. We harvest them individually when they’re at their best. We, therefore, stand out and can tell how many Tomélons we expect and when. So we can guarantee continuous delivery throughout the season.”

Another important selling point, Tom points out, is form. “First off, measurements show its Brix value is on par with ‘normal’ watermelons. However, these are considerably smaller, so they’re quite sweet. That sweetness is nicely and compactly concentrated in a smaller size with thinner skin,” he says.

Photo right: Grower Lynn Vermeiren with the Tomélon. 

“These melons are also easy to handle. They weigh between 700g and 1.5kg, so you never have the problem of these melons sitting in the fruit bowl for two days and no longer tasting good.”

“Families are getting smaller, making eating a whole large watermelon hard. Plus, it’s perfect to take to work. You don’t have to cut a few slices in the morning to put in a container, leaving the rest. Just grab the whole watermelon and cut it at work,” explains Tom.

Regionally focused
Those reasons are why this product was so successful last year, he admits. “The Tomélon mini watermelons were well-liked, despite being relatively more expensive. Even when large watermelons were being promoted, Tomélon did well. I think that its consistent quality led to repeat purchases.”

“Naturally, some people are more budget-conscious these days, but it seems consumers are more likely to save on non-perishable rather than fresh products, where quality can vary greatly. That’s, after all, when an excellent product’s flavor can make a difference,” Verdonck says.

He and Tomeco are thus looking to further market its novelty which should go into production in June. “We’re constantly developing the crop and have managed to set up a dedicated greenhouse with some adjustments we made last year. We keep expanding, but this year’s still a little too soon to supply all of Belgium. We’re focusing on Flanders to highlight the local aspect. We think it’s vital to meet the full regional demand.”

Tom Verdonck at Coöperatie Hoogstraten’s Taste Days

“If we’d had been given Carte Blanche after last year, we’d have scaled up considerably and would be supplying all of Belgium by now, but that’s hard to achieve. We stay, first and foremost, passionate tomato growers and don’t want to run before we can walk,” Tom continues. 

“Rather, we want to expand in a controlled way and remain in full control of the crop. We also still consider mini-watermelons a summer product. We could grow them under lights, but with volatile energy prices, it’s wasteful to cultivate products with unenthusiastic demand.” 

San Marzano and Sweetest Queen
Besides the mini-watermelons, an eye is still, obviously, kept on tomato cultivation and certainly the specialties. “As mentioned, we remain tomato growers. We’re putting much effort into breeding ToBRFV-resistant vine tomatoes because these are a big part of the market. Tomeco can’t ignore that, but we certainly also want to keep working hard on our specialties,” says Tom.

“We can be distinctive there. We’ve figured out a complicated cultivation program to offer enough variety, but we want to emphasize our Sweetest Queen and San Marzano tomatoes. So, we’re working hard to communicate their uses clearly. The future’s always uncertain, but this challenging market undoubtedly offers opportunities.”

Tomeco is looking forward to a nice summer with its Tomélons, but now, first, its various tomatoes’ large productions. “The weather’s been dismal,” says Tom, “so we, unfortunately, went into production even later than we wanted. But we’re starting to deliver larger volumes. For the coming weeks, we only have one disadvantage.”

“If the weather cooperates, everything will be on the market simultaneously. Everyone’s anxiously awaiting tomatoes, so we must be careful with marketing. However, with summer approaching and with the need for beautiful, local products, an oversupply will resolve itself,” Tom concludes.

For more information:
Tom Verdonck 



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