Gee Vee Enterprises was founded in Harlow, UK, in 1997 by husband-and-wife team Gaetano and Vincenzina Cappalonga. The site is based in the UK’s Lea Valley, which has a rich horticultural heritage. The growers originally started with chrysanthemums, but when that industry suffered a downturn in 1999, Gaetano made the bold but ultimately successful decision to switch to producing peppers instead. Since taking over the running of the company several years ago, their son John has invested heavily in producing high quality at low costs, including through a sizable expansion, and he is continuously looking for innovative ways to make further improvements.
Certain level of expertise
John joined the company in 2006 and it has gone from strength to strength ever since. Its high-quality peppers are supplied through the marketing company Abbey View Produce to grocery chains and markets across the UK.
“Growing peppers is very much a waiting game,” says John Cappalonga. “It’s like playing chess; it takes three months for a pepper plant to grow and another eight weeks for a pepper to mature, and then you’re in full production between June and September.”
“We employ 11 members of staff, all full-timers. There’s an element of caring about the crops and the business that you only get with full-time employees. They also need to have a certain level of expertise, and that can only be achieved through training. Of course it’s seasonal work, but when that season is up to 11 months long we prefer to keep the same team from beginning to end,” he continues.
Cappalonga’s focus has always been on high quality at low cost. He takes a no-nonsense approach to sustainability, stating that it only makes sense if it is commercially viable too. But he has found plenty of ways to reduce the company’s environmental impact while also keeping costs down, including by using biodegradable products and raw materials to reduce waste, and saving energy by harvesting rainwater and recycling 100% of the water used. “Although water is abundant in the UK, it is so fundamental for crops that I believe we should take a little bit more care about where it comes from and how we use it,” he adds.
Gee Vee Enterprises currently has four glasshouses amounting to three hectares in total, but the site actually comprises five acres and planning permission is in place for further expansion. They produce red and yellow blocky peppers (Nagano and Jorit, respectively) in the newest and largest glasshouse. “Then we have Palermo sweet pointed peppers in the medium-sized glasshouse, and baby snack peppers in the oldest one, which is a Robinson dating from 1974,” explains the grower. “By growing different crops in different greenhouses, we not only adapt to what the market wants but also to what the greenhouse wants.”
Four seasons in one day
The newest glasshouse, which comprises 12,000 m2 with an integrated packhouse and office, was built in 2011 as the result of a £ 1.5 million investment project. Cappalonga received backing from Barclays Bank at a time when the industry was still reeling from the financial crisis. It is equipped with state-of-the-art technology including a high-tech Bogaerts automation system, irrigation and water recirculation systems, hanging gutters, thermal screens and robotic harvesting trolleys.
“Growing peppers requires a very technical approach because the yield and fruit load can be affected by all kinds of factors, such as the amount of light you get early in the year or a nice mild winter like we had last year. So we try to combine high-tech techniques with the old style of growing to make the most of the weather, but it’s difficult to maintain a stable greenhouse climate when you’ve got four different seasons in a day, like we do in the UK,” he comments.
No light at all
The changeable climate can certainly pose problems. “Early in the year, the light intensity is actually higher than in the summer because the sun is still low in the sky. Sunlight comes in through the glass at an angle and can scorch the leaves,” he explains. “Also, conflicts can occur in the environmental system; the heating switches on and the vents close because of the cold outside temperature on chilly but sunny days. Even when it’s cloudy, if the wind suddenly blows the clouds away you’ve got hot pipes, closed vents, high humidity and intense sun on the crop – which is the opposite of what you want for peppers. We have electric screens as a shading mechanism on the roof and also on the sides, but on a dull day shading means you’ve got no light at all.”
Faced with this frustration, the grower was interested when his advisor recommended a solution from Dutch firm Mardenkro. “I heard that the ReduFuse removable coating diffuses light on a bright day but lets it through on a dull day. I’m a complete sceptic so I had to see it to believe it. We tried it in the greenhouse with Palermo. This variety is very light-sensitive and has a higher risk of blossom-end rot. I was amazed at the result. It looks like diffused glass in direct sunlight, but without direct sunlight the glass is as clear as day. It’s an unbelievable product that really helps with light intensity inside the greenhouse, facilitating a controlled indoor environment that is better suited to peppers. It also creates a more pleasant work climate for employees.”
Cappalonga has been using the coating for around five years now, from April to September. “Although we don’t use it for all our peppers for cost reasons, it’s a winner for the Palermo. This premium variety makes it easier to justify the investment.”
Research and innovation
In addition to physical expansion plans, he is keen to explore how other innovative solutions can help him to take the business to the next level. “I’ve always been a fan of new ideas and new approaches, even from an early age. In that context, I recently visited the Netherlands on a two-day horticultural tour co-organised by In Greenhouses magazine. I’ve been on similar trips in the past and they often revolve around networking, but this was the first time I’ve noticed such a strong technical focus and have been able to connect with academics and experts from both within and outside of the industry. It was refreshing and insightful to discuss what can and could be done rather than what has already been done.”
In parallel with his business activities, Cappalonga is actually working on an academic research project and hopes to become the first commercial pepper nursery in the UK to implement LEDs. “We have a small area where we’re currently testing lots of LEDs to explore not only the commercial viability but also if there’s a consumer marketing angle. We can already manipulate almost anything: heat, humidity, water; everything except the light. It’s the missing link and I believe LEDs could be the solution,” he concludes.
Text: Lynn Radford, images: Gee Vee Enterprises