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Eurotrip: Snapshots of indoor growing on the continent

This indoor growing story was originally published in The Grower, April 2020 Print Issue. Find it here. A photo gallery of Shawn’s tour can be found at the end of this article.

Indoor growing is taking off at an incredible rate in North America, with Ontario among the largest greenhouse clusters in the world. Whether it’s berries, lettuce, tomatoes or peppers, growers are bringing produce into the greenhouse where they can use tech and innovation to streamline production, increase density, improve quality and more.

“Growers are making major investments into this business and they are committed to staying ahead of the curve,” says Shawn Mallen, manager of hydroponics and manufacturing at A.M.A. Horticulture Inc. “Our customers want solutions that will optimize product, open new niche markets and ensure value for money. Many of those solutions are coming from Europe, particularly the Netherlands, so its important for us to pay attention to what’s going on there.”

Earlier this year, Shawn embarked on a 10-day continental road trip, stopping to see growers, suppliers and trade shows to learn what’s new and what will be coming to indoor growers in North America.

Across the (lettuce) pond

Shawn kicked off the trip in England, where he met Maurice van der Knaap, inventor of the Dry Hydroponics pond system. Together, they visited a commercial lettuce grower who recently expanded production to 21,000 square meters using the Dry Hydroponics system, which supports clean, reliable leafy green cultivation year-round. The system’s rafts are uniquely designed so that the plant itself never touches the water – hence “dry” hydroponics. All greens are retail-ready, and can be cut, washed and bagged right in the greenhouse.

Next, the duo flew to the Netherlands to visit the Dry Hydroponics demo field, where Maurice and his team test different varieties and conduct research. A.M.A. has been working with Dry Hydroponics for nearly a decade, and on this visit, Shawn had a chance to see the system’s latest improvements.

“After testing and customer collaboration, we’ve started making the rafts out of solid polypropylene, which combines lightness and insulation with durability,” explains Maurice, who invented the system in 2009. “Now, growers can wash the rafts on any standard crate washing line, which makes this system that much more convenient.”

AI, bugs and blackberries

Leaving leafy greens behind, Shawn attended the International Soft Fruit Conference in ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

“The research at the symposium has become increasingly targeted to help growers solve specific problems,” says Shawn. “This year, one stand-out topic was AI and pest control. Tech companies are using AI to predict the spread of pests and disease, and then using robotics for targeted scouting in areas where a problem has been identified.”

Walking the show floor, Shawn also saw interest in an emerging blackberry market. “The blackberry market in North America is fairly small, but we might see that start to change,” says Shawn. “Here in the Netherlands, they’re not only growing blackberries, they’re growing them indoors and with new innovations.”

Bato Plastics, for example, is among the companies offering new solutions for the soft fruit market. “We introduced a new tray for young plant production of soft fruit, mainly raspberries,” says Raymond van Mierlo, account manager at Bato. “The system is designed to increase the air buffer below the bottom of the pot. With this extra height, the risk of diseases caused by splashing water is reduced. More air pruning helps to ensures consistency in root growth and enables a fixed planting distance.”

Chasing windmills and CO2

Next, Shawn hit the road visiting several leading horticultural suppliers across the Netherlands, including Van Krimpen, BVB Substrates, C&E, Bato, and others.

In the little town of Genderen, he had a chance to tour Oerlemans Plastics manufacturing facility and learn how they create CO2 tubing, horticultural film and other horticultural supplies.

Plastic particles are melted down into liquid form, blown into a film and formed into products like CO2 tubing or control and ground cover sheets.

CO2 tubing plays a vital role in the greenhouse, especially for production of peppers, tomatoes or even cucumbers. The tubes disperse the carbon dioxide needed to support plant growth and photosynthesis, and they and often run directly under the plants.

At the end of the twine

The final stop on Shawn’s whirlwind tour was a visit to Lankhorst Yarns manufacturing facility in Portugal, where he was met by senior manager, Joris Van Calcar.

Lankhorst produces horticultural twine using an extrusion process similar to Oerlemans’. In their case, an increasing number of products are made with industrially compostable PLA – maize starch plant-based raw material. After extrusion, the material is blown into sheets and cut into thin strands. The strands are fibrillated to improve softness and pliability, helping to prevent peppers and other produce crops from getting bruised or scratched.

Compostable horticultural twine continues to be a desirable alternative for indoor vegetable growers. “In a few years, plastic horticultural yarn/twines will be a thing of the past, and in Canada we continue to see a movement towards more sustainable alternatives,” says Joris. “We will be working with A.M.A. Horticulture to conduct a large-scale test with pre-wound compostable twine in coming months.”

Shawn’s travel log

Total Mileage: 20,000 KM

Modes of Transit: Car, airplane, train, bus, taxi, walking

Biggest Takeaway: Even though we have advanced so much, there is so much more innovation to come, especially in the areas of AI, production efficiency and sustainability. 

Tip for North American growers: Get ready for blackberries and think outside the box in terms of what can be grown indoors. 

Eurotrip snapshot of indoor soft fruit in Europe
“If you don’t pull over to take a photo of a windmill, then it’s not really a Dutch road-trip is it?” – Shawn Mallen, A.M.A.

Solutions for indoor growers in North America

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Explore our wide range of solutions for indoor commercial growers here.