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.
Gee Vee Enterprises produces a mix of blocky and pointed peppers on three hectares of high-tech greenhouses in the UK’s Lea Valley. Since taking over the running of the company several years ago, John Cappalonga has invested heavily in producing high quality at low costs. As a big fan of new ideas and new approaches he is continuously looking for innovative ways to make further improvements. Recent projects include the use of a diffuse coating system to reduce the light intensity and trials of LED lighting.
Text: Lynn Radford. Images: Gee Vee Enterprises.
Diffuse glass is becoming routine in new build greenhouses – and much more quickly than anticipated. But it is still difficult for growers to estimate precisely what added value it has for their crops. So researchers Silke Hemming and Tom Dueck are calling for growers to share much more of their experiences. Here they look at some of the issues faced by growers in practice.
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Over the past few years, Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands has been scaling back its research into the advantages of diffuse light. After a number of years with very convincing trial results – a 5-12% increase in production under a diffuse roof – very little is being invested in fine tuning these days, as the greenhouse horticulture sector is expected to finance its own projects.
Bringing knowledge together
The general picture is clear. “There are already plenty of reasons to choose diffuse light to improve cultivation,” researcher Tom Dueck explains. “The crops we tested in all the trials produced bigger, better quality yields. But a lot of crops have hardly been tested at all, including some major ones like sweet pepper and chrysanthemum.” Dueck advises a group of sweet pepper growers who have a lot of questions. A great deal of knowledge has been accumulated on tomato and cucumber, but this can’t necessarily be applied to sweet pepper because it has some unique characteristics of its own, such as fruit setting in flushes, which causes highly fluctuating sink strengths.
Dueck adds: “It would definitely help if there were more data available. A lot of practical knowledge is being accumulated worldwide – a veritable treasure trove of data if it could all be brought together.”
His colleague Silke Hemming, who heads the research team, calls on growers to share the results of growing under a diffuse roof in the same way as in the energy monitoring programme. “If we have a lot of data, we can come up with new rules of thumb,” she says. “We have already been able to fine-tune the traditional rule of ‘1% light = 1% higher production’ using large volumes of data for a lot of crops. For chrysanthemum, for example, 1% more light equals 0.6% higher production. We would also like to produce similar rules of thumb for crops grown under a diffuse roof. This would help growers with their investment decisions. You can find this data in research papers, but the underlying database is limited. A lot of practical data would extend the database significantly.”
For growers, the current shortage of sufficiently wide-ranging information leads to uncertainty and questions such as: Is the effect of diffuse glass not mainly due to the improved condensation distribution? Could you not get just as good results with AR-coated clear glass? And how does the glass behave over time?
At the WUR LightLab in Wageningen, they do in fact use older diffuse glass for their research, Hemming says. “But if we don’t know the history of the glass, we can’t draw any conclusions. Was it substandard to begin with? Has it been cleaned the wrong way, with fluoride, for example? In any event, what we can say is that there is no one single supplier whose glass often produces poor results.”
Dueck wants to see ageing tests carried out. “At IKEA they fatigue test their chairs millions of times to simulate ageing. Glass manufacturers should also have to test their glass with an accelerated ageing method relevant to greenhouses.”
In collaboration with the inspection agency TÜV Nederland, the WUR LightLab has developed an accelerated ageing test by adapting various solar panel ageing standards to suit the greenhouse setting. This has recently been made available to manufacturers.
Another question that arises in the commercial setting is whether the additional yield achieved under diffuse glass is not largely due to the fact that light transmission is better when the glass is wet. This would be the case if the condensation formed a water film on the roof. When the measurement protocol for wet greenhouse roofs was developed, it was discovered that this kind of water film could in fact increase light transmission on some types of diffuse glass by as much as 3% (0% was also obtained with the panes tested). “Condensation can therefore never be the explanatory factor for production increases of 5-12%,” says Dueck. “What’s more, a comparative test carried out in the winter with clear and diffuse glass produced an average of 5% higher production. That also points to a greater effect than could simply be ascribed to improved light transmission.”
In addition, Dueck’s colleague Tao Li carried out doctoral research in 2013 in which he investigated the reason why a diffuse roof resulted in better photosynthesis. He found that the improved horizontal light distribution was the most important factor, followed by better leaf photosynthesis and better vertical light distribution. None of these factors have anything to do with transmission.
Crops vital for longer
“We ruled out the effect of better light transmission many years ago, in our very first trial,” Hemming reports. “We used old greenhouses with clear glass and covered the outside of the glass with clear or diffuse film. Nothing was changed on the inside of the roof, where the condensation forms. Yields in cucumber and pot plants in the greenhouses with the diffuse film were much higher.”
Moreover, claims that the same results could be achieved with double-sided AR-coated glass can easily be dismissed with Tao Li’s research results and analysis. Dueck: “AR glass could have advantages in the winter due to its higher light transmittance, but the positive impact of diffuse light continues throughout the spring, summer and autumn. The crop suffers less stress, its photosynthesis capacity is higher and growers report crops remaining vital for longer in the autumn. Any additional yield under AR glass in the winter is completely outstripped by the benefits of diffuse light the rest of the year.”
Some growers report slightly higher energy consumption in the morning under diffuse glass. That is not caused by the diffuse properties but can occur if the glass has lower light transmittance, he says. “But 8% additional yield always offsets the cost of a little extra gas.”
Estimating added value
A central issue is that it is difficult for growers to estimate the added value for their crops. Manufacturers offer a whole range of glass types, from plain, low-iron and double-sided AR-coated to low diffusivity, medium diffusivity and high diffusivity. How are growers supposed to choose if they don’t have enough data on their own crops? Higher diffusivity is almost always better, the two researchers say. “We speak to growers who decided to go for just 20% haze and now regret their decision because their crop yields less than expected over the year and still suffers too much stress,” Dueck says.
They find diffuse coatings ideal for existing glass. “It’s true that they take away 4-5% light, but that’s not an issue in the months in which these kinds of coatings sit on the roof,” Hemming says. “And in southern countries, these coatings make a lot of sense,” her colleague adds.
A temporary coating offers flexibility, but the same definitely goes for a diffuse screen, which can be opened if the light loss continues for too long. “On the other hand, the screen intercepts more light than a coating,” Hemming says. “The trade-off will be different in every situation. The fact remains that growers need to do more to share their practical experiences to make it easier for growers to choose the best option.”
All trials with diffuse light lead to the same conclusion: higher yields and better quality. But many crops have barely been tested at all, which makes investment decisions tricky. Researchers are calling on growers to share operational data to help improve understanding. They take a look at some of the issues that crop up regularly in practice.
Text: Tijs Kierkels. Images: Wilma Slegers and Lé Giessen.
The third edition of GreenTech Amsterdam, which runs from 12 to 14 June, will be twenty percent bigger than the last edition in 2016. By the end of March, ninety-seven percent of the available stand space had been allocated. According to the organisers, RAI Amsterdam, this proves that the event has really made its mark as an international platform for the horticultural sector. As in previous years the trade fair will feature a wide range of seminars, some of which will be held in the new themed pavilions.
Awaiting the international delegates this year will be at least 450 exhibitors, including world market leaders and innovators in horticultural technology and a full compliment of greenhouse builders, horticultural suppliers, machinery companies, potting compost and substrate producers, lighting vendors and seed suppliers.
Ever since the first GreenTech in 2014, the organisers have aimed to make this trade fair stand out from other similar events by offering a wide-ranging knowledge programme. The upcoming edition will therefore feature more than 80 seminar sessions spread over three theatres: Food & Flower Crops, Climate, Water & Energy, and Trends & Innovation.
In addition to the Vertical Farming Pavilion introduced in 2016, this year’s event features two new pavilions: the Precision Horticulture Pavilion and the Medicinal Crops Pavilion. The Precision Horticulture Pavilion will showcase censoring technology, cameras, robotisation and digitisation, while the Medicinal Crops Pavilion will focus mainly on technology for medicinal cannabis production, a subject that will also feature in the knowledge programme.
Following its success two years ago, the Vertical Farming Pavilion is to make another appearance this year. “In 2016 we embraced the discussions going on within the sector as to whether this would be the future of global food production,” exhibition manager Mariska Dreschler says. “The fact is that it is a very interesting development from a technological point of view. In this pavilion we explain exactly what the technology entails and we will also be demonstrating some cultivation systems, reflecting some of the many new initiatives in this field in recent years.”
The informative theatres are partly made possible by some of the international heavyweights of the horticultural sector, including Koppert, Biobest, Svensson, Hoogendoorn, Hortimax, Priva, Philips and Alumat. “We are very proud that these companies and organisations have expressly affiliated themselves with this initiative,” Dreschler says. As of early April, it is hoped that even more companies will contribute to the knowledge sessions. “Their knowledge and expertise make these sessions a must for any grower. Together we will produce an outstanding programme that shines the spotlight on the international grower’s day-to-day practice.”
A committee of experts is advising the organisers on the themes, subjects and speakers for the knowledge programme. This Advisory Board was set up to ensure an objective dialogue on subjects of topical interest within the rapidly evolving horticultural sector.
The members of the Advisory Board for this edition are: Sjaak Bakker, chair (Wageningen University & Research), Aad van den Berg (Delphy), Gabrielle Nuijtens (Top Sector Horticulture & Propagating Materials) and Michael Ploeg (Dalsem). “We are delighted to have such a prominent Advisory Board at our side,” the exhibition manager says. “This way we can ensure that the knowledge programme is made up of sessions that will challenge growers and encourage them to push the boundaries. The Board’s expertise and experience are of inestimable value to our programme.”
The Organic Farmers Fair
This year GreenTech will also be the venue for The Organic Farmers Fair (TOFF). For three days, the spotlight will be shone on knowledge and innovation in organic agriculture and horticulture. This part of the event came about as a result of a collaboration with IFOAM and FiBL and has been made possible partly thanks to five partners: Bejo, DCM, Steketee, Koppert Biological Systems and Delphy. Wageningen University & Research is also involved as a supporting partner.
The organisers have put together a high-quality knowledge programme on organic farming, with in-depth coverage of the most relevant issues in this field. TOFF is aiming to become an international meeting place for organic growers as well as conventional growers considering the switch to organic.
Forefront role in organic farming
The Netherlands plays a leading role in the technical development of both organic and conventional agriculture and in increasing and improving production. The domestic market grew by 11.5% in 2015 and by 13% in 2016, to around €1.5 billion, with exports of €1.2 billion. The total EU market exceeded €30 billion in 2016. Annual turnover in the world market is heading towards the €100 billion mark.
Markets are developing fast, but so is organic farming technology, with several thousand companies supplying products and services to organic farmers across the globe. So it was a logical step to combine the momentum of the TOFF event with GreenTech 2018 at RAI Amsterdam. Delegates can also take the opportunity to visit some innovative organic farms and demo fields in the Netherlands.
The future of horticulture
The GreenTech Summit takes place on 11 June, the day before the exhibition opens. This seminar offers 750 investors, breeders and growers a unique opportunity to network and to take part in a high-quality programme of sessions. Under the title “The future of horticulture – insights for the next decade”, visionaries and experts will be sharing their vision of the world of horticulture over the next ten years.
The summit will be hosted by stand-up comedian Greg Shapiro and will feature speakers including Stijn Baan (Koppert Cress), Martin Koppert (Koppert Biological Systems), Mike Vermeij (BOM Group) and Christian Kromme, futurist, speaker and author of “Humanification”. Kromme will help unlock the DNA of innovation and will explain how to apply it in our horticultural businesses and our daily lives.
The direct tie-in with the Flower Trials breeders’ event delivers great added value, the exhibition organisers believe. “The two events were held simultaneously in 2014, and there was some mutual interaction in 2016. We will be continuing this collaboration this year,” Dreschler says.
A greenhouse is to be built in the exhibition hall, where ornamentals breeders taking part in the popular open days will be presenting their products. Vegetable breeders’ crops will also be on display, ensuring that this key greenhouse horticulture segment is also represented at the show. The breeders’ pavilion looks set to be an impressive experience and a good starting point for the visits to breeder organisations.
One of the highlights of the first two editions of GreenTech was the much coveted Innovation Award, which attracts more and more entries each time. This award forms part of the exhibition’s efforts to stand out internationally in the areas of knowledge transfer and innovation. “We want to showcase all the latest trends and developments,” Dreschler says. “I would even go so far as to say that no other horticultural trade fair in the world shines the spotlight so emphatically on its innovations.”
Annual international trade fair
Dreschler says she will regard the 2018 edition as a success if it gives rise to synergies between exhibitors and delegates that lead to potential business. “We will once again use every indicator at our disposal to gauge satisfaction levels among the various target groups. If delegates tell us that they have learned something new and will come back to Amsterdam again next time, then we’ve done a good job.”
Note that the fourth edition of GreenTech will not be taking place in 2020 but in 2019, as the organisers have decided to turn it into an annual international trade fair.
The third edition of GreenTech takes place in Amsterdam in mid-June. This year’s event will be bigger than the last one in 2016, both in terms of floor area and delegate numbers from the Netherlands and abroad. This time there will be even more focus on knowledge transfer and innovation: various themed pavilions will highlight topical issues in international greenhouse horticulture, and an independent Advisory Board will be keeping a close eye on the quality of the knowledge programme. The organisers have decided to switch to an annual event from 2019 onwards.
Text: Roger Abbenhuijs.
Dutch Rhododendron grower Frans Kortenhorst was looking for a way to get rid of weeds and moss in his pots for good. He cut squares out of a roll of cling film and a bin liner and secured them around the top of the pot with a rubber band. In the middle he made a hole for the plant. Six years later, this idea has a name and it has the support of his horticultural supplier.
With his engineering background, rhododendron grower Frans Kortenhorst from Heeten in the east of the Netherlands is always looking for ways to innovate and automate his business processes. But his best ideas come during quiet periods at the nursery. He was fed up with having to remove weeds and moss by hand to get the plants ready for delivery. “Having 300,000 pots pass through your hands is a massive job that has to be done every year.” Laughing, he says that preferring an easy life makes a healthy starting point for innovation and encourages him to optimise and get creative.
Weed and moss problem
According to René Janssen, Substrate Product Manager at horticultural suppliers Horticoop, the Cleanpot System is an enormous improvement. Unsurprisingly, their enthusiasm has resulted in collaboration with Frans Kortenhorst.
The weed and moss problem in pot plant cultivation is tackled by covering the surface of the pots. Bark chips go quite a way to reducing weeds and moss, but not enough for Kortenhorst’s liking. “The retail channel is not very happy with the stuff either,” the grower says. “Bark makes a lot of mess: it lies loose on the surface of the pot, it falls on the shop floor, on the conveyor belt in the greenhouse and in the customer’s car – those kinds of complaints.”
Step by step
The idea of covering the pots with film was something Kortenhorst thought worth trying. He ran a trial with both transparent and dark film on five pots in the first year, followed by thirty pots in the second year. It immediately became clear that the film didn’t harm the plants. The transparent film was dropped straight away, but the dark film suppressed weed and moss growth completely. All the additional benefits were an added bonus. “We cut our watering by 25% and I got rid of Sciarid fly in one fell swoop,” he says.
Kortenhorst designed a machine to fit the film to the pots and built the prototype in his own workshop. “We introduced it at our nursery in stages – 10,000 pots in the first year, 100,000 in the second year, and our total production of 300,000 after that.”
Longer shelf life
Retailers have welcomed the system. Kortenhorst made sure of that before introducing it throughout his operation. Most of his dwarf rhododendrons are sold in Lidl Europe stores. The most positive aspects for the retailers were the longer shelf life and the fact that the pots were cleaner to work with. The shelf life of the plants is a good four days longer because the potting soil stays moist. What is more, most consumers don’t even notice the film to begin with when they buy the plant. They have to remove it when they get home, of course, along with the handle.
However, from the point of view of sustainability, it is still plastic, and that needs work. Kortenhorst: “We would really like to switch to a biodegradable material. But while the pot, the label and the cover are still all made of plastic, it is better if the film is plastic too. Then they can all go into the recycling together.”
Wide range of uses
A substrate specialist from Lentse Potgrond (a division of Horticoop) spotted the film on the pots during a routine customer visit around six years ago, and it immediately caught his attention. Janssen envisages a wide range of uses for cover film in the trade channel. “We were very impressed with the idea,” he says. “After all, the use of film also has a bearing on the growing medium. It doesn’t physically touch it, as there has to be a 2 cm air buffer between the film and the potting compost for oxygen exchange and to stop mildew from forming.”
Horticoop is keen to raise awareness of the Cleanpot System because it could have potential for many growers and groups of crops. The company has therefore worked with Kortenhorst, the inventor, and machine builders Linthorst Snijtechniek to develop a machine that combines potting up, applying the film and planting the plants in one fluid movement.
Apart from the great advantage of reducing moss and weed growth, the initiators report a whole host of other beneficial effects that occur in the pot. First off, Janssen mentions the homogeneous moisture distribution in the pot. That is because there is no transpiration taking place; the water condenses against the film and drops back into the growing medium. It also reduces the amount of crop protection products, water and fertiliser needed and extends the shelf life of the plant.
According to Janssen, this is an interesting concept for many ornamentals. From the point of view of sustainability, the water efficiency aspect is something that is bound to appeal to all growers, he believes. “It is also a sustainable way of dealing with soil pests. There are some specific reasons as well. In cyclamen, for example, the film can prevent a botrytis attack on the bottom leaves. And in orchids the system can stop roots crossing into other pots. Sometimes the roots from one pot will grow into other pots nearby, and when you pick up the pot, you drag the other plant along with it.”
The more experience growers gain with this system, the longer the list of applications and benefits gets. Bunnik Plants from Bleiswijk in the west of the Netherlands are also testing the system. Improving shelf life in the supply chain is an important issue for them. Kortenhorst again: “If it was only about moss and weeds, it would have died a slow death. But when it is a question of sales or no sales, then it’s a no-brainer.”
Running own business
Kortenhorst runs the 2.5 hectare rhododendron nursery with his sister and brother-in-law. Plastic film greenhouses are not what you’d necessarily expect to see in the middle of verdant countryside resplendent with farms, villas, cows and sheep. But the oldest greenhouses have been here for almost 30 years.
His sister Gonny set up the nursery after completing her horticultural training, on the spot where their parents’ cows used to graze. Her husband Jos joined her five years later. And five years after that Frans decided to give up his job as a mechanical engineer at a machinery factory and join them. “What attracted me to running your own business is that you can shape it the way you want it.”
Time for innovation
Today’s nursery looks nothing like the one that started out all those years ago. Back then they grew a wide range of plants which they sold locally, focusing mainly on the retail market. Twenty years ago they decided to sell their products via Flora Holland and gradually reduced the size of their product range. These days Kortenhorst is well known as a specialist grower of dwarf rhododendrons. The plants go to retail and all sales take place by auction. The bulk of the plants are exported.
With the exception of the two busy periods – when the cuttings are planted and in the selling season – the three entrepreneurs do all the work themselves. “We are very happy with our present size; we wouldn’t want to get any bigger. We make time to innovate, which we think is very important and fits well with who we are,” Kortenhorst concludes.
It started out as a solution for suppressing weeds and moss in pots, but the system created by grower and inventor Frans Kortenhorst is much more than that. With a simple piece of plastic film on the pot, the benefits are there for the asking. The system has nothing but beneficial effects during production, for retailers and for the consumer at home, he says. The concept also offers scope for a wider range of applications in horticulture.
Text: Suzan Crooijmans. Images: Rikkert Harink.