What should you do as a European grower if you want to grow, but the local market is saturated? Then you look carefully further afield. Dutch orchid growers Ter Laak, of Wateringen and Valstar, of ’s-Gravenzande, decided to extend their business in Guatemala. With support from the Private Sector Investment (PSI) Programme run by the Dutch government their step over the ocean became a reality. In 2016 the Dutch growers, together with local partners have been working hard at their challenging role as trendsetters, both in production as in marketing.
In 2012 a Dutch trade mission was organised in Costa Rica and Guatemala. Richard and Eduard Ter Laak had already been tipped off about the opportunities in this Central American region and decided to go along. “And when you actually come in contact with local businesses, your plans quickly take shape," says Richard. “The great thing about this country is the good access: two large seaports and a short export route to the United States. From Guatemala to Miami is only two to three days by boat. And that is a market where you can still make a difference with phalaenopsis. Here too there is a growing middle class and thus increasing sales opportunities."
Despite Guatemala's attractive location, the climate (eternal spring), very competitive production costs and access to the promising markets, there was no large-scale production of phalaenopsis. The margins are interesting, but the required investment in technology and knowledge is immense: An excellent opportunity therefore for the Dutch growers.
Ter Laak (the Netherlands), Agro orchids (Costa Rica) and HFT seed services (Guatemala), supported with PSI-money, started a project: Sustainable cultivation of phalaenopsis in Guatemala. The joint venture is called Ter Laak Americas and last February it started to construct a 1 ha greenhouse in Portrero Carillo. “Building is still in full progress. This is phase 1, but in future we could grow to a total of 5 ha."
The company wants to sell the flowering plants – initially 15 to 20% of the total – locally. It hopes to sell partial adult plants into the surrounding countries. Here the growers see plenty of demand for quality products.
The same applies to cut cymbidiums. North America is a major international market for these tropical flowers and sales are expected to increase by a further 10%. Nearby Guatemala offers great logistical advantages and perfect production conditions. That’s the reason that Star Orchids and local partner Flores Bohemia opened a greenhouse in Tecpan in November 2015.
Brothers Jan and Wim Valstar had always said that they didn’t want two locations. That was until the FloraHolland Trade Fair in 2013 when they were approached by Flores Bohemia, a Guatemalan producer with at least 23 years experience. The growers from ‘s-Gravenzande were asked if they would be interested in setting up a nursery in Guatemala for cut ¬cymbidiums. Professional curiosity did the rest. Jan: “Everything was going well for us in the Netherlands and we were tempted to try something new. We are young and still want to carry on in the business. Is it a big challenge? Yes.” Under the name Holland Orchids SA, the brothers Valstar now grow seven colours of cut cymbidiums on 1 ha in Patzicia.
Holland Orchids expects to cut the first flowers in October 2016. “They are produced in a completely Dutch greenhouse," stresses Jan. “We had the greenhouse built by Dutch partners such as Stolze, VDH Plastic Greenhouses, Priva and the VB Group.”
The grower stresses the importance of cooperation with companies who have experience with foreign projects and with local parties who know the politics and culture of the country. “Everything related to the land, construction, permits and regulations is organised by our local partner. We provide the knowledge to produce an optimal crop." To run this as best as possible they hire a Dutch crop consultant who visits Guatemala a few times per year. Jan and Wim also go fairly regularly. “When I’m in the greenhouse it’s just as though I’m in ’s-Gravenzande," says Jan. "But outside it’s a world of difference. It really is a poor country, so it’s nice that we can create some employment here."
Access to climate computer
And of course there are the modern means of communication. For both companies it’s the same: the growers in the Netherlands have 24/7 access to the climate computer in Guatemala. “In this way we can check if everything is going well,” says Valstar. “But you still have to get used to that. In our own greenhouse we are in full control while in Guatemala we have to leave a lot to others. And then you notice things: What for us is self-explanatory is not known there. You have to explain literally everything. And you can’t just pop into the greenhouse to have a look. Of course, we trust the people working there, but they still have a lot to learn regarding cultivation. Then the distance can be quite difficult."
Richard ter Laak agrees that the distance and the associated time difference are the biggest hurdles. “Once a month I go and check the situation in Guatemala. It’s a massive journey. First, an eleven hour flight to Panama, then another 2.5 hour flight to Guatemala and lastly a 2.5 hour drive to the building site. If I leave in the morning I arrive in the hotel late in the evening. I can also do business via email or telephone but then we have to arrange everything before 11 o’clock in the morning. Then it’s night in the Netherlands and when we get up they are asleep. The lapse between question and answer is therefore an impractically long time.”
Long term gain
Very occasionally, the Dutch growers have contact with each other about Guatemala but most of the issues and challenges are handled by the local partners. But they are unanimous about one thing: The future. That looks very promising in Guatemala. Richard: “We are situated in very good locations: in the dry corridor, on a high plateau. We also have cool nights so all-in-all excellent growing conditions for phalaenopsis. I’m confident that we can produce high quality flowers and plants here. Of course, it’s a big undertaking. At the moment we are only increasing our business risk. But over the long term, this investment should contribute significantly to being able to spread our risk.”
Brief look at Guatemala
The Republic Of Guatemala in Central-America borders Mexico, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. It has a very varied landscape. In the middle and Northwest is a high plateau with mountains and volcanic peaks rising to over 4,000 metres altitude. The southern coastline and the west of Guatemala are relatively flat and are intensively used for producing sugarcane, fruit and cattle.
The capital of the country is Guatemala City. Patzicia, where Holland Orchids is located, is around 75 kilometres west of the capital at 2,200 metres altitude. Portrero Carillo (Ter Laak Americas) is 1,800 metres above sea level and is located about 100 km east of the capital.
The climate in Guatemala has a wet season (May-October) and a dry season (November-April). Although the country is in a tropical climate zone and is mostly warm and sunny, local weather conditions can differ significantly, in particular due to the large differences in altitude.
In Quetzaltenango (2,200 metres altitude) for example, it is not unusual to have night frost during October to December. The climate at this high altitude is just right for phalaenopsis cultivation: cold nights, not too warm during the day and lots of light. On the other hand, not far to the south the temperature rarely falls below 15ºC.
With an area of 108,889 km2 Guatemala is about two and a half times the size of the Netherlands, and has ± 12 million inhabitants. With a growing population of middle-income earners it is not among the poorest countries in the world. However, the money and the power are in the hands of a small number of elite so almost three quarters of the population does live below the poverty line.
The economy is heavily reliant on the traditional agricultural sector. About 70% of the total exports are of agricultural origin and one in two workers is involved in the agricultural sector. Agriculture amounts to a quarter of GDP and industry a fifth. Another important source of income is the money sent home by Guatemalans working in the US.
The combination of Guatemala and phalaenopsis works. The country’s climate is perfect for growing and the marketing opportunities are good. Both locally and in the neighbouring countries the demand for good quality plants is growing. Both Ter Laak and Star Orchids recently built a second greenhouse in this country. The growers expect that with their Dutch know-how and technology and with help from local partners they will be able to establish a good business.
Text: Jojanneke Rodenburg
Images: Leo Duijvestijn
Priva won the GreenTech Innovation Award 2016 yesterday at the international trade show in Amsterdam. The company was the winner in the category Equipment as well as the overall winner, beating a total of 73 entries. With the robot, christened Kompano at the Priva stand, deleafing tomato plants can be done completely automatically and profitably for the first time.
The prize was awarded during the opening of the GreenTech on 14 June by the chairman of the jury, Aalt Dijkhuizen. In the jury’s opinion, the robot is an innovative solution for tomato growers for the difficult work of deleafing. The robot is able to do it entirely independently. In addition, it is an economically appealing alternative. Because it very accurately removes the leaves from tomato plants, viruses do not get a chance to spread.
The development of the robot took at least 15 years. Priva developed the robot in cooperation with a large number of growers, so the product has received ample field testing. The jury views Priva’s innovation as the start of a large series of robots, which will be developed for horticulture in the coming years to efficiently take care of strenuous work. They therefore identified the Priva deleafing robot as heralding the beginning of a new era for international horticulture.
Thanks to the most up-to-date vision technologies, the robot can work day and night. This allows the robot to work, on average, just as fast as a human. The accuracy of deleafing is about 95%. Three growers from the consortium that developed the robot - Lans, Prominent and Vereijken Kwekerijen - will be the first to start working with the robot. From June of 2017 on, the robot will also be available to growers outside the consortium. Pre-orders may be placed online.
Priva will put the robot on the market as a service, so that growers will be able to benefit from the innovation immediately, without incurring high investment costs. With this first generation of the deleafing robot, 0.75 to 1 hectare of tomatoes can be serviced. For larger growing surfaces several robots will be needed, or it can be combined with manual labour.
Two more winners
In addition to Priva, the international jury also awarded two nominations with a category Award. ISO Group won a prize in the category Production and the HortMax-Go! by Ridder HortiMax Group won in the category Automation Solutions. The ISO Plant sampler is able to independently take samples from leaves and collect the DNA material on a microplate. In the jury’s opinion, the ISO Plant sampler offers a great, automated technique that enables work to be carried out fast and with precision.
According to the jury, the HortiMaX-Go! is a modern, user-friendly, affordable climate control and greenhouse irrigation computer. The modular system uses smart switches that can be installed in a plug-and-play manner. The innovation is intended to be entry level, so that growers all over the world will be able to use this technology.
Photo: Mario Bentvelsen.
Dutch tomato grower Kees Stijger, of Honselersdijk, believes that measuring the water content in a single substrate slab is not enough. Instead, he feels that a new wireless unit for measuring moisture, with its multiple sensors spread over several watering sections, gives a more representative picture of his entire crop. He grows red, orange and yellow medium-sized tomatoes on stone wool on 2.5 ha.
To understand the distribution of the water content in the Cultilene Optimaxx stone wool slabs the tomato grower uses the new module RootView from Klimlink, an analysis package for climatic data by Klaver4ICT. In a cut section of slab, the colours relates to the water content so you can see at a glance the distribution of the water in the slab.
To know the actual water content, measurements need to be taken in the stone wool slab. For this purpose the greenhouse has four wireless measuring units each with five sensors. Every sensor has three equally long probes, which are pushed into the stone wool slab at different heights and places, also under the stone wool block and in the side of the slab. Each slab has 15 different measuring points for moisture level, temperature and EC. "This gives a good picture of what is happening in the slab,” says Kees Stijger.
Analyse the measurements
The values from the slab are sent to a sensor that hangs on one of the greenhouse columns. The data that has been collected is sent via a wireless connection to a universal database. This also contains data from the climate computer, such as radiation, water supply, volume and EC of the drain water. In this way the measurements from the slab can be analysed in combination with the climate data. An average figure is taken from the sensors from the different measuring units to provide a representative and reliable picture of the water content in the slabs.
“By knowing the water level at the top as well as at the bottom of the slab the grower deduces the flow of water during the course of the day. By then playing with the water supply, the system makes it possible to reduce the drain percentage,” says Wim van Vliet, of Klaver4ICT.
With these measurements the tomato grower has insight into his watering strategy. With this knowledge, he can determine the watering, such as when to start supplying water in the morning and the volume of water to give. The grower can also see the EC-gradient in the slab.
“If you look carefully at the EC, you can adjust the watering accordingly. You can allow the drain percentage to depend each day on the EC and water content of the slab. As a result you have less drain water to disinfect and possibly discharge. And that is s big advantage,” says Stijger. “Even more importantly is that the root structure remains good, so there are no problems from water shocks: you prevent the roots from drowning. If there is a good root structure in the slab, the crop above ground is also much easier to manage. That is reflected in the crop growth and fruits."
Because additional measurements don’t automatically provide more information, the grower wanted a different form of presentation. Van Vliet set about presenting the mass of data in a simple form. In the summer of 2015 this resulted in a new module that provides insight into the distribution of the water content in the slab itself.
Van Vliet: “In a vertical cut section in the length of the slab we can see the water content in the form of different colours. The grower can see at a glance the distribution of the water in the slab. This distribution, or the ‘slab dynamics’, varies from one moment to the next and therefore is easy to show in an animation.”
Graph line water content
As well as the slab dynamics the module also shows all the relevant data from the climate computer in a 24-hour-graph. With a reading line it’s possible to point to every time the slab dynamics and the graph values are at the desired level. In the graph of the water content it is possible to show part of the slab as well as an average for the entire slab. The grower can make graphs of the average at the top of the slab, the average at the bottom of the slab, the difference between the top and bottom of the slab and the water content measured per sensor. In this way he can keep a close eye on the saturated bottom layer and the difference between the top and bottom of the slab.
The graph quickly gives the grower a complete picture for the entire day, but he can also zoom in on the slab dynamic for any given moment. The module automatically shows the values of the corresponding slab dynamics at that moment.
Conditions in the slab
Thanks to the new module, the grower receives quick feedback. Stijger: “During the spring, with the changeable weather, it’s important to know what is happening in the slab, especially with Next Generation Growing, when you use the screen more to save energy. Because there is less transpiration under a closed screen, you have to make sure that the slab is not too wet.”
The aim is to further use the data from the climate computer and the slab measurements to make separate calculations, for example, the radiation in relation to the water supply, the moisture content, the transpiration and the amount of drain. “The radiation determines the amount of water you give, but it also depends on transpiration,” says the grower.
The module ensures that the moisture sensors don’t essentially have to be connected to the climate computer to provide a complete analysis. With the combined display of graph and slab dynamics Rootview is at the forefront of developments. If the tomato grower could decide, he would prefer to receive a graph of the water gradient via the climate computer.
Van Vliet: “As far as we are concerned, the data doesn’t have to only come from the climate computer, but data can also go to it. For example, this would offer the opportunity to make a connection that could shorten the duration of the watering. The data provided can also be used to give advice or to follow a certain strategy.”
As well as new insights the module also yields new questions and needs. For example, the grower would like insight into the possible fertiliser accumulation in the slab. The EC in the slab is measured but so far there is no form of presentation. Van Vliet is currently working on a way to visualise the EC distribution in the slab.
Dutch tomato grower Kees Stijger uses a new module that allows him to visualise the distribution of the water content in multiple stone wool slabs. This is done by showing the colour in relation to the water content in a cut section of the slab. In order to measure the water content, EC and temperature, five sensors, each with three probes, are stuck into the side of the substrate slab. With data from the climate computer such as radiation, water supply, amount and EC of the drain water, the measurements from the slab are analysed further.
Text/photos: Harry Stijger
Royal Pride is one of the few companies in Holland that is allowed to display the Milieukeurmerk (Dutch quality mark), so the bar on food safety has been set high in Middenmeer. 'The first step in striving for the lowest possible amount of crop protection agents is to prevent diseases in the crop. A good climate computer system is essential here', says tomato grower Frank van Kleef.
Royal Pride recently switched to a different climate system and a different supplier. Co-owner Frank van Kleef explains the motivation for teaming up with Priva. 'In terms of development the Connext from Priva is much more advanced than other systems. It allows us to grow crops more energy efficiently and make advances in terms of production. This allows you to successfully recoup this type of investment. The new system also has an advantage in the field of food safety, as a good growing climate produces healthier plants with higher resistance.'
'It is, and remains, the green-fingered grower who can best decide whether or not the plant is happy.'
It is an essential aspect of the operational safety Royal Pride continuously strives for. 'We've come a long way in that field. With the current size of tomato companies like ours, that safety is very important. When we switched to the new climate system we had good reason to include a loop so that the necessary back-up was available at all times.'
Technical developments provide added value, but Frank van Kleef does not believe that automation will make expertise superfluous in the future. 'The grower's judgement will always be very important.' At the company in Middenmeer 3500 sensors have been installed to measure all kinds of things. 'But it is, and remains, the green-fingered grower who can best decide whether or not the plant is happy.'
'A development such as Next Generation Greenhouse Cultivation is promising but keeps shifting because technology keeps changing.'
However, due in part to the technological developments, that grower has regularly changed the way they work over the past 20 years. 'A development such as Next Generation Greenhouse Cultivation is promising but keeps shifting because technology keeps changing. We need to continue improving. While 20 years ago we grew 40 kg of tomatoes with 60 cubic metres of gas, today we grow 70 kg with just 35 cubic metres.'
Source/photo: Priva/The Grower Files.