Greenhouse and Vertical Farm Vegetable Production Is All About Balance.
Ever wonder what’s the difference between a good grower and a great grower?
I recently made a post on Linkedin that brought out some amazing comments from professional growers. It also highlighted the fact that those new to our industry do not understand the terminology we commonly use. In fact, most of these terms mean something completely different to professionals from other industries looking to join the world of controlled environment agriculture. (Don’t know exactly what controlled environment agriculture means? Follow this link.)
In Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA), we used the term “grower” instead of “farmer.” The difference between a grower and a farmer is minimal. Growers in controlled environment agriculture facilities often have more tools at their fingertips to control temperature (air temp and root zone temp), humidity, light, CO2, air flow, nutrients, water and oxygen. Farmers (depending on the crops) don’t have the ability to control or manipulate the climate. They can (at times) control irrigation, but they mostly respond to variables outside of their control rather than attempting to predictively manage variables in order to achieve the best outcome..
Many of you know that while I am the owner, regular content contributor and chief editor of Urban Ag News, I am also the owner of Hort Americas. Hort Americas is a wholesale supply company focused on providing products and services to growers and operators of traditional farms, greenhouses and vertical farms. As a company, we have expertise in a few specific areas, including photon management (i.e., supplemental lighting with grow lights and light intensity management with shade paint), rootzone management (i.e., substrates and growing media such as rockwool, coir and peat moss) and nutrient management (i.e., traditional and organic fertilizers). And as someone who is often responsible for selling then helping growers successfully implement new technology, it is easy to understand how some people believe that one product can make the difference in their crop. BUT, after working with some great growers, I quickly learned what separates them from their peers.
What is the difference between a good grower and a great grower?
Great growers understand one key concept that seems fairly simple (and it is). They understand how to keep their crop balanced. They know that a healthy, balanced crop gives them the ability to direct plants’ energy where it’s needed and when it’s needed to strengthen the crop at the right times. The result is consistent, high-quality yields that give management and sales teams the confidence to gain sales by promising then delivering uniformity and reliability.
So what does a balanced crop mean?
Coming from the ornamental greenhouse industry, I did not hear the term “balance” until I took a job at Grodan and moved to the greenhouse vegetable side of the industry. I first heard about balance when traveling with crop consultants in the early 2000s. Most of our visits at that time were to greenhouse tomato producers. I learned so much so quickly while listening to their conversations about improving yield or solving problems. They referred to balance when discussing crop management strategies that create trade-offs between vegetative growth (leaves and roots) and generative growth (flowers and fruits). They described crops in balance as most productive and while they might not always achieve the highest yields, they do always produce the most consistent yields.
How do my closest grower friends define a balanced crop?
Since I am fortunate enough to communicate with some of the world’s best controlled environment agriculture growers, I thought it would be cool to share with Urban Ag News readers how they look at and define a balanced crop.
Leafy green grower/specialist: A balanced crop is when the plant has a good combination of vegetative to generative growth. In lettuce, this means a good root development identified by healthy white roots, leaves with some starch accumulation patches and glossy leaf appearance. Proper leaf development has determined the length and width of the leaves and firm crisp texture.
Grower with experience in leafy greens and vine crops: Consider that healthy “roots, shoots and fruits” are the foundation of a balanced crop. If any of the three look unhealthy or abnormal, the crop is out of balance. Understanding what healthy roots, shoots and fruits looks like allows the grower to know the parameters needed to steer the crop in a way that provides the highest percentage of sellable crop that fits the production schedule.
Ex-grower and greenhouse/hydroponic consultant: A balanced crop is dependent on what crop you are speaking about. It can be defined in many ways, but there are two factors that drive the questions a grower asks before making cultivation decisions. (For this example, the crop is tomatoes.)
- Balance between crop health vs profit
- Do we add more potassium, which creates more flower production but also weakens the plant’s vegetative state?
- Or do we take a more balanced approach, which will keep the plant vigorous and vegetative while producing less fruits? Is the reduction in fruit (i.e., loss of sales) worth having a more robust plant that is less susceptible to pests?
- Balance between yield vs flavor
- Do we turn up heat to ripen fruits faster and know that this results in less sugars in fruit (lower brix count)? Or do we grow the plant a bit slower (less profit) and focus on flavor and quality?
- Do we keep the lower leaves on the crop or do we take them off? Keeping them on provides shading to the fruits, which slows the ripening process and produces higher brix content (i.e., flavor) but sacrifices speed, which is profit?
All growers want two outcomes — highest yields and best quality. All greenhouse owners (who for the smaller farms are many times the grower as well) want the highest yields, the best quality and most profits. This might be what separates the good from the great. The best growers and the best business people understand that you cannot always have it all. They and their staff realize the need to make choices along the way that impact profit, quality and yield. They understand what’s important to their business and, more importantly, what’s important to their customers. Trust me when I say, taste is not always the most important factor.
Want to learn more about the commercial controlled environment agriculture industry? Email us your questions. We will work within our professional network to get you answers. We want to give special thanks to Ramon Melon (AppHarvest), Bob Hoffman (Soli Organics) and Serge Boon (Boon Consulting) for being great friends and helping me with this content.
Chris Higgins is the founder of Urban Ag News, as well as President and Co-Owner of Hort Americas, LLC. Message him here.