PANDA BOOSTS NICHE PRODUCT
In the nineties, Bennie Nielen established his own nursery for perennial bamboo. As unknown as this Asian product was then, it is very popular nowadays. Thanks to the pandas at many European animal parks, who also appreciate the canes from Bamboo Giant Asten, Noord Brabant.
“When I started, bamboo was a virtually unknown plant. When I used to say I grew bamboo, people thought I was talking about sticks”, Bennie says. “By now, bamboo is an established plant. Garden architects know it and use it, and so do consumers. Personally, we have always put energy into promoting the product. We regularly exhibit at shows and fairs, such as TuinIdee in Den Bosch. Not for the purpose of selling, but purely to bring bamboo to people’s attention.”
He first came into contact with bamboo 25 years ago. His parents had a small nursery and grew vegetables. “I can thank them for my green fingers.” The greenhouses had to make way for industry. Bennie discovered that flowers and plants made him happier than vegetables, and decided to explore his options. He came across bamboo via a company that showed him the ropes. “The bamboo plant immediately appealed to me”, he enthuses. “Shortly after, I met a man at an exhibition in Amsterdam who sold perennial bamboos. I suggested that I could start growing them for him. When I spoke to my parents about my plans, they didn’t know anything about bamboo. They said: ‘If you fancy it, you should do it’. That has been the best advice. I started with one bamboo plant and a hired greenhouse.”
Deeply rooted in the bamboo market
The first two years, he worked for the seller he met in Amsterdam. He set up for himself in 1995 and established Bamboo Giant.
By now, the company is deeply rooted in the niche market of bamboo. There is no other company that is aimed specifically at bamboo plants to such an extent. Bennie: “Our strategy is that we offer perennial bamboo plants all year round. We never say ‘no’. If we are working on a project that requires more bamboo than we have available, we call on other companies that grow for us.” The company in Asten supplies directly to customers across Europe, mostly garden centres, export companies and landscape businesses. Bennie also sells his products through the garden centre and the intermediary service at Plantion. “Our advisory role is suited to Plantion. If one of their customers, often a landscape gardener, looks for a bamboo type that is suitable for a very moist or very dry space, for instance, we can provide tips and information. We like making sure the right bamboo plant thrives in the right place.”
By now, the company employs 14 people. There is steady growth. This is caused by growing popularity of the bamboo plants on the one hand, and because there is increased demand for bamboo canes from the leisure industry on the other hand. Fifteen years ago, Berlin Zoo were the first to contact Bamboo Giant to ask if they could also supply bamboo canes for their panda bears. “I knew that pandas ate bamboo, but that was about it. We picked up the gauntlet and went for it.” Growing is done on eight hectares and is specialist work. “Pandas are real connoisseurs. They do not want young bamboo, but canes that are about two to three years old and seven or eight centimetres thick. Their jaws are incredibly strong. The bamboo is so hard that our saws have to be sharpened every three days.”
Bamboo Giant supplies zoos in Scotland, Austria and Belgium. The pandas at Ouwehands Dierenpark in Rhenen also munch on treats from the Asten kitchen. “Pandas want variation, just like people do. A type that is eaten a lot today, can be less in favour in a couple of days. We usually supply an assortment on a weekly basis, consisting of six to twelve types of bamboo. The keepers order something different for the week after.” The sale of bamboo to animal parks is profitable for Bamboo Giant. “Bamboo plants are still our main activity, the sale of panda feed makes up 15 to 20 percent of our turnover. But it is growing. Our name is doing the rounds through word of mouth and we are also receiving requests from theme parks using bamboo as decoration for spaces and rides. We dispatch around 1500 kilos of bamboo foliage every week.”