Farming is an innately labour-intensive industry. With the advent of greenhouse technology leading to increased yields and better quality crops, labour has remained just as essential. It seems only natural, then, that labour is one of the industry’s greatest challenges.
This challenge stems from several factors and applies to all aspects of labour management: from unskilled general labour all the way up to senior management. The greenhouse industry (especially here in Southern Ontario) has been notorious for its use of labourers sourced from abroad. It may seem like a cop-out to try and get cheap labour – but in fact they cost more to hire (transportation and accommodation are provided) and are paid well above the minimum wage.
This issue does not end at the greenhouse doors. Companies are having issues finding management-level employees as well. The greenhouse industry is not everyone’s first thought when an innovative multi-million-dollar enterprise is brought up.
Universities are producing herds of well educated individuals waving CVs looking for work, yet none of them seem to be pointing them towards this sector. How is it that one of Canada’s most dynamic, fastest growing and innovative industries is lacking applicants? Farms are working double time just to meet their obligations.
I myself was no different. I grew up and completed a bachelor’s and master’s degree 50 km from the largest high-tech greenhouse cluster in North America. Not once did it even cross my mind to consider working there: and it’s this very fact which manifests the struggle greenhouse growers are facing today.
How do we get young, determined, hard-working individuals with a drive to make an impact, attracted to working in greenhouses? How do we highlight that this is a rewarding, passionate and exciting long-term career that requires engineers and scientists and labourers alike? Partnerships with universities are integral aspects of fostering talent acquisition. NatureFresh* is establishing programmes with universities to bring students in on co-op like terms, exposing them to the cutting-edge technology and get them excited about careers in horticulture.
Paul Jeannet, farm manager of the UrbanFarmers rooftop greenhouse in The Hague, has used the Qlipr system for three months in four different crops: ‘It’s very easy to use, once you get used to it. It allows us to save time and - this is the biggest advantage in my opinion - we can reuse the clips after every crop cycle. We can easily separate the clips from the plants and compost the plants, because there are no strings or plastic clips left in it. Nothing is wasted.’
The Qlipr system fits right into the UrbanFarmers philosophy, which is based on creating added value and minimizing waste. At the UF002 farm in The Hague, consisting of a greenhouse with a surface area of 1,000 m2 on top of a former office building and a Tilapia fish farm, that philosophy has been taken into practice. The waste water of the fish tanks is turned into nutrients for the plants in the greenhouse. In the greenhouse, different varieties of lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers and aubergines grow in a hydroponic system. The water that is not used by the plants is purified and pumped back to the fish farm, which reduces overall water usage by 80%. Pesticides are forbidden; only biological plant protection methods are allowed. The products are sold to customers in the region, to minimise food miles. ‘We grow fresher, tastier and healthier products, as close to our customers as possible. And we minimise waste,’ Paul Jeannet explains.
The fresh revolution
Paul Jeannet (24) started working for Urban Farmers one year ago, after an internship at UrbanFarmers’ first farm (UF001) in Basel. He studied biological agriculture in Switzerland, before he joined ‘the fresh revolution’. ‘At first we were only growing lettuce and tomatoes. When our gastronomy partners told us that they would prefer more diversity, we took out some of the tomatoes and put in cucumbers, aubergines and sweet peppers instead, and several different varieties of tomatoes. We kept the lettuce section.’
It is quite different from the normal plastic clip we were using, but once you get used to it is very easy to use.
Six months ago Paul got in touch with Cor Pellikaan and became interested in the Qlipr system. ‘We wanted to give it a try to see if it would work in different crops. Three months ago we started using the system in tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers and aubergines. As it turned out, the system is quite easy to use: we take the lower clip and place it on top and we lower the plant at the same time. It is quite different from the normal plastic clip we were using, but once you get used to it is very easy to use.’ The lowering schedule is once a week for tomatoes, three times every two weeks for cucumbers and once every two weeks for sweet peppers and aubergines.
Cor Pellikaan, the inventor of the Qlipr system, needed a pilot project to test his clips on sweet peppers and aubergines. Until three months ago, the system - which he invented in 1996 - was only used by growers of tomatoes and cucumbers worldwide. The system consists of a crop hook (1.40 meters long) and two clips. Halfway through the plants’ development, extra crop wires are needed with which to fix the crop hooks into place.
It will save labour, because you can de-leaf, remove shoots, prune and lower the plants in one go.
The main advantages of the system are, according to Pellikaan: ‘It’s very simple to use. Everybody can work with it. It will save labour, because you can de-leaf, remove shoots, prune and lower the plants in one go. This is also better for plant health, because there is less chance of damage.’ Paul Jeannet confirms that he saves up to six hours a week in the rooftop greenhouse because he uses the Qlipr system instead of regular plastic clips.
The main advantage of the Qlipr system is its durability, says Pellikaan. ‘My first client bought them 18 years ago and he is still using the same clips. Of course, you have to disinfect them at the end of every crop cycle, but that is very easy. You can use steam, chemicals or pasteurization. I recommend the latter, after two years of thoroughly testing this method. Just put the clips in a box on a trolley and cover it up with a canvas. Heat up four pipes to 60°C under it for three days. Works perfectly.’
Thanks to the Qlipr system neither plastic string nor clips are left on the plants after each crop cycle.
Paul says this is a big advantage too, but there is more. Thanks to the Qlipr system neither plastic string nor clips are left on the plants after each crop cycle. ‘So we don’t have to throw away our plants, but we can shred them for composting. It also makes it much easier for us to get rid of the plant material, because we have to transport everything via the lift.’
Qlipr versus traditional clips
How many clips are needed to bear the weight of the plants? ‘At the start of the season one clip will suffice. You attach it at 40 cm below the head of the plant. When the plants get heavier you will need to add a second clip, Cor Pellikaan explains. A new item in the Qlipr product range is the double-stop crop hook of 1.40 meters with two stoppers: one at 50 cm and one at the bottom of the hook. This makes it possible to use the same hook for tomatoes as well as cucumbers.
You buy it once and then you can use it every year.
The investment in the Qlipr system is higher than with traditional plastic clips, but they will last a lifetime, Cor says. ‘Also, you don’t need to buy expensive trolleys with hydraulic platforms, because the plant tips grow at a height of 160 cm. Therefore, cheap trolleys will suffice. In most cases this will save you enough money to buy Qlipr clips.’
Paul Jeannet has become a fan of the Qlipr system rather quickly: ‘Cutting leaves has become more enjoyable. We no longer have a plastic string or plastic clips at the bottom of the plant holding the leaves together. Only two clips at the head of the plant.’ Would he recommend this system to other growers? ‘Yes! It is a really interesting system to work with; you buy it once and then you can use it every year.’
Pellikaan thinks the Qlipr system will also benefit growers in the future. He is working on a mechanical system to pollinate crops without the use of bumblebees. It has been tested thoroughly and he expects to launch it this year. He is also working on a robot that can harvest and de-leaf tomatoes, which is still a prototype. That is still a bit of a secret, so we will stop asking here. It is clear that Cor Pellikaan is still coming up with new inventions for international horticulture to create simple solutions that work.
Evaporation - and therefore energy loss - can be limited by removing excess foliage. This principle is, however, applied to only a few crop varieties. Professor Marcelis sees oppurtunities for sweet peppers, tomatoes, aubergines and roses.
‘Sweet peppers do not need their lower leaves for production, for example. These leaves do not contribute to photosynthesis, while they continue to evaporate moisture. Without this evaporation you could save energy. This is why you should remove the lower foliage in late summer or early autumn. Dutch growers, however, believe that this will take too much work. Their answer to the research proposal we submitted was "We’re not going to do that", because they did not expect it to yield any substantial profits. In cases like these there is no point in conducting a study to assess the production increase resulting from de-leafing, or whether or not de-leafing has a beneficial effect on susceptibility to disease due to the improved air circulation around the plant. Aubergines are another crop that would benefit from de-leafing in late summer or early autumn.
‘De-leafing sweet peppers is relatively easy: you simply tear the leaves off. You can easily estimate the results achieved in a calculation model. However, due to the immediate rejection by the horticulture industry this study was never given a chance to prove the benefits of de-leafing.
‘Tomato growers, on the other hand, have embraced de-leafing as a useful practice. Research is now being conducted into the amount of foliage that is genuinely needed by a plant. Plants produce too much foliage in winter, in any case. We are conducting in-depth research into this.
‘When growing tomatoes, you remove the leaf at the head of the plant before it has fully formed. The plant will then no longer need to spend any energy on the development of that leaf. This is already being done in practice, but the process could be improved. Research is currently being conducted on this by Wageningen UR Greenhouse Horticulture in Bleiswijk, but I am not directly involved in this project.
‘We have not yet reached any definite conclusions with regard to how much foliage is desirable. I am convinced that de-leafing would also be useful in the cultivation of roses. Roses waste a lot of energy on unnecessary foliage. If all the sugars now seeping into bent branches would be made available for production, you could probably harvest many more branches. We have to come up with a smart solution for that. I am certain that far too much energy is being lost.’
The emergence of LEDs, climate control and a growing insight into plant physiology allow crops to be grown in greenhouses all over the world. Does greenhouse horticulture in the Netherlands have a future?
‘There are actually many advantages to greenhouse horticulture in the Netherlands. Summers aren’t so hot. There could be more light in winter, but there are other greenhouse horticulture areas - such as in the United States - where winters are much colder. Many regions have to cope with regularly extreme weather conditions. No, greenhouse horticulture certainly has enough advantages.
‘It is, however, a fact that horticultural developments are taking place at an accelerated pace all over the world. The Netherlands is a front-runner with respect to efficiency. If you wish to retain that leading edge you will, however, have to continually come up with smarter solutions with regard to efficient cultivation, marketing, quality and vitamin and nutrient content. Innovation is essential to horticulture.’
Leo F.M. Marcelis (Elst Gld, 1963) studied horticulture at Wageningen University, where he obtained his PhD in 1994. He was a professor by special appointment of Crop Production in Low-Energy Greenhouses at Wageningen University until 2013 and team leader at Wageningen UR Greenhouse Horticulture. On 1 December 2013 Prof. Dr Leo Marcelis was appointed Professor of Horticulture and Product Physiology at Wageningen University.
Download the complete interview with prof. dr. ir. Leo Marcelis about diffuse glass, LED-lighting, urban farming, de-leafing and the effects on plants, energy consumption and cultivation strategy (login required).
Source/photo: Tuinbouwteksten.nl/Theo Brakeboer.