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Thanks to Growing by Plant Empowerment principles

15% profit increase for Mexican grower

Published: September 30, 2020 Share?

Roadmap to

Sustainable growing

As a natural evolution of Next-Generation Growing, Plant Empowerment is paving the way for further automation in the greenhouse sector by combining data analysis with today’s technology. A two-year trial to compare the results of Growing by Plant Empowerment (GPE) principles against traditional commercial methods at United Farms in Mexico resulted in significantly less use of resources and a 15% net profit increase. This confirms that GPE is the roadmap to sustainable and profitable horticulture.

Data driven growing

Growing by Plant Empowerment can be seen as a natural evolution of Next-Generation Growing, which has been around for approximately a decade. It is an integrated approach based on physics and plant physiology that focuses on keeping the plant balances in equilibrium.

“Various technological advancements have meant that all the hardware and software is available to improve greenhouse crop production in theory, and good results have in fact been achieved in practice, but many growers still don’t know how to get the best out of the technology,” says René Beerkens, a consultant at Hoogendoorn Growth Management, a GPE Implementation Partner company. “We realized that it’s not only about technology, but also and above all about transforming data into information as the basis for decision-making. So we formed a team of partners – each with our specialization – to share our knowledge and experience with growers about how to create the optimal controlled greenhouse environment.” In addition to Hoogendoorn Growth Management (worldwide innovator in horticultural automation), four other GPE Implementation Partners were involved in this trial: Saint-Gobain Cultilene (an irrigation specialist), Koppert Biological Systems (a leader in natural pest management), Ludvig Svensson (a pioneer in climate control and energy efficiency through textile-based screens) and LetsGrow.com (the leading data platform for the horticultural sector).

“It’s all about achieving the right balance in the greenhouse – of the plant physiology, energy, moisture and so on. Thanks to their ‘green fingers’ based on their knowledge, training and experience with the crops, growers can be very successful, but their decisions still include a degree of subjectivity. Data holds the key to being truly objective. By applying Data-Driven Growing (DDG) right from the start, you can steer the plant to manage the balance more successfully, which maximizes production and ultimately your profit,” continues René.

Mexican project

Data-driven insights form the basis for today’s GPE principles. They have been extensively tested, both in the Netherlands and elsewhere in the last decade. One of the most recent international projects, from 2018 to 2020, has been at United Farms, a producer of tomatoes and cucumbers, in 65.5 hectares of high-tech greenhouses in Querétaro, which is located approximately 200 km northwest of Mexico City.

The aim of the trial was to compare GPE against the traditional, commercial way of growing in terms of production and resource use efficiency by setting up two greenhouse compartments. In the commercial compartment, experienced growers made adjustments based on their intuition and experience. The GPE compartment was managed by young and relatively inexperienced growers, who made decisions based on data. They also received extensive training on the GPE and DDG approach by the five Plant Empowerment Implementation Partners. The multidisciplinary team developed a holistic approach that was uniquely fine-tuned for the climatic conditions in Mexico and the specific situation at United Farms.

Dashboard for visualization and analysis

A variety of sensors and smart cameras were installed in the GPE compartment at United Farms to constantly measure parameters such as air temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide, radiation, EC and root temperature as the basis for automation. The Hoogendoorn climate control system gathered the data centrally. “We built a dashboard on the LetsGrow.com platform and customized it to visualize and analyse all the data. This gave the grower easy access to the information, offering a helicopter view of the greenhouse and helping him to make the appropriate decisions,” says Evripidis Papadopoulos, researcher and data analyst at LetsGrow.com. “Thanks to the dashboard, growers can log onto a computer and see the state of the crop even when they aren’t in the greenhouse, which saves a lot of time. Besides that, data can be continuously accessed and monitored remotely by the experts from the GPE Implementation Partners, as the basis for advising the growers if necessary. This also provides great perspective for crop advisors.”

Results

The results of the GPE trial were compared against the commercial greenhouse fitted with the same equipment and exposed to the same outside conditions. Overall, the results can be summarized as 31% reduction in fertilizers, 52% savings on integrated pest management (IPM) applications, 13,8% less gas consumption for heating and a 12% increase in production, leading to a 15% net profit increase.In terms of the environmental impact, the 14% reduction in the use of water was an important advantage for United Farms because water is a very serious issue in Mexico. These results clearly confirm that GPE is the roadmap to sustainable and profitable horticulture.

Predictable and consistent

The GPE Implementation Partner companies successfully achieved their aim of demonstrating that DDG can support a more consistent, repeatable way of crop production, which reduces the risk for investors and customers alike. “For growers, it’s important that their crop production activities are as predictable as possible so that they can offer their customers a stable and consistent supply of fresh produce. They also want proof for investors that their approach works – that it will deliver a reliable return right from the start,” says René. “LetsGrow.com predicts the weekly yield four weeks ahead. This data allows growers to anticipate future production levels and use all the tools available to them to make any necessary adjustments,” adds Evripidis. “Moreover, as you build up more digitized historical data, you can define your growth plan and strategy more effectively before the start of each crop cycle, which leads to fewer adjustments having to be made during the growing process and hence much more efficiency.”

Future outlook

“The Growing by Plant Empowerment data gives you a clearer picture of what you are looking for in the greenhouse and that results in much more stable production and well-balanced plants that are easier to manage,” comments Or Weiss, grower at United Farms who was responsible for the GPE location during the trial. “By applying the GPE principles we were able to achieve a very good profit last year.” At United Farms, they are so satisfied with the results of this approach that they are now working on plans to roll it out in the company. “They have gained a lot of knowledge over the past two years, to implement this throughout their company,” adds René. “In fact, they are already helping other Mexican Growers by sharing their knowledge during weekly online training sessions.”

By combining data analysis with today’s technology, growers are not only able to improve the quality and yield of their existing crops, but can also manage a larger production area with less effort. The human touch remains important, of course, just in a slightly different role. Or as Evripidis puts it: “You could say we make the car, but growers still have to drive it.” For this, the combination of the GPE principles and innovative technology is key.

“What this project has confirmed is that although different regions in the world have different climates and radiation levels, the laws of physics are the same everywhere on Planet Earth,” concludes René. “This is particularly beneficial in regions where experienced growers are hard to find, not only in Mexico but also in other countries. The GPE principles can be learned relatively quickly. This can help to bring new, young growers into the sector in order to meet the urgent and ever-growing demand for high-quality and sustainable fresh food and beautiful flowers and plants, right around the world.”

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