Crop production is always a matter of balancing all the inputs in the greenhouse – such as water, heat, light and labour – to achieve optimum plant growth. Plant Empowerment is a logical extension of that, according to Anne Claire Goyer, owner of French tomato growing group Les Serres de la Chapelle.
Les Serres de la Chapelle
“Plant Empowerment helps us to minimize the risks in crop growing”
Anne Claire Goyer
Anne Claire Goyer, a fourth-generation grower from the Retière family, owns the French group of tomato production companies called ‘Serres de la Piogerie et St Leger’ and ‘Serres de la Chapelle’. With a total of three greenhouse facilities – two close to Nantes and one near Rennes, all in the north of the country – it is one of the biggest greenhouse businesses in France, producing cocktail, cherry and truss tomatoes on 30 hectares. The products are sold under various brands including Mygoo, Jouno and Potager de Jade to grocery retailers throughout France.
Anne Claire’s business approach is characterized by a strong entrepreneurial spirit and commitment to innovation. This is reflected in her focus on further optimizing the company’s efficiency by combining modern crop management and technology in all manner of ways. In that context, the company has recently successfully implemented the principles of Growing by Plant Empowerment across the group.
“We regard Plant Empowerment as a logical fit with the continuous improvement mindset within all the companies that make up our group,” says Anne Claire. “We’re always taking a critical view of how we have done things so far, and how we can do things better. We have a very strong focus on sustainability, and we’re working on various projects relating to water utilization, the use of biological protection, and sustainable energy management. Plant Empowerment aligns with that way of thinking, and is extended to our crop managers and their approach to our plants every day. Nowadays, crop production is not just about growing as many fruits as possible, but about doing that in a profitable and environmentally viable way. And such choices may mean that you have to change your way of growing. Plant Empowerment is helping us to do that.”
The greenhouses at Les Serres de la Chapelle are equipped with numerous sensors for monitoring almost every conceivable aspect of crop performance. “No two days are the same; the plant energy is always changing, and the climate is different at each of our three locations. For example, our St. Léger site near Nantes, close to the Atlantic coast, is very exposed to the wind,” she continues. “The weather changes very quickly, so the climate forecasts can’t be relied on. Therefore, our crop team in St. Léger always has to prepare the plants for windy circumstances by keeping more power in the heads, just in case. This is one example of how we use the crop data; it enables our crop managers to continually compare the situation against previous weeks, months and years, analyse what has happened before and prepare for what might happen next.”
Data-driven decision: no need for pre-nights
There are plenty more examples of how data analysis has led to improvements at Les Serres de la Chapelle. “A couple of years ago, the high outdoor temperatures in the summer made it impossible for the greenhouse team to work with the usual pre-nights. When they analysed the data, they discovered that this change didn’t result in any fruit size issues, so they decided to stop using pre-nights at all. In fact, they actually ended up producing the biggest fruits we’d had for many years by not using pre-nights – and it’s all down to analysis,” adds Anne Claire. “By considering the objective data, our crop managers can take a less cautious approach, maintaining more speed or keeping the trusses closer together, for example.”
Working together to find answers
Over the years, Anne Claire and her team have built up a strong international network in the horticultural industry and have closely followed the developments related to Next-Generation Growing and Plant Empowerment. “We don’t believe that there is just one way of growing. For us, it’s important to be open-minded and analyse, in order to learn,” she comments. “By playing an active role in the horticultural community, we find others who share our interest in taking a different approach to crop production. We exchange ideas and experiences with them, and work together on finding answers to any questions.”
New approach to screening
“One day, a member of our team mentioned to Pieter Mol from Svensson – one of the Plant Empowerment Implementation Partners – that we were struggling to accurately maintain the temperature of the plants at the head. Pieter suggested adapting the screening strategy to work with other indicators such as vapour pressure difference (VPDif) and absolute humidity rather than relative humidity, as we were doing at that time. We now use a shade screen and a thermal screen in combination with our LEDs.” Anne Claire admits that crop managers were a little sceptical about this new approach at first, but that they soon discovered that it worked. Screening now gives the team more control over the temperature at the head of the plant, since they can close the thermal screen at night to block outgoing radiation. Meanwhile, the light-diffusing shade screen can be closed on sunny days, for example. “Above all, this also gives us control over the humidity – both in terms of retaining it at the end of the day and evaporating the humidity more optimally in the morning, depending on the climate outside,” she states.
As demonstrated by these examples, even small changes in the crop strategy can have a big effect. “But you don’t always get the desired results. Sometimes a change to improve one aspect such as vigour or fruit setting will actually have a broader negative impact on the plant because it wrecks the balance,” continues Anne Claire. “Plant Empowerment has opened our crop managers’ minds about all the factors they can control as a way of managing the crop, and how those factors interact to keep the plant in balance. And once they’ve made a change, they use the data to verify whether it has been successful – and if not, to find out why not. So the analysis literally never stops.”
Adoption by the crop management team
A team of approximately ten crop managers work across the entire Les Serres de la Chapelle group. When asked whether there was any resistance to adopting the Plant Empowerment principles, Anne Claire replies: “Our approach has never been to tell the crop managers what to do or even try to persuade them. Instead, we believe in learning by doing. They are free to experiment, but they must also think about the biological cause of whatever results or problems they experience. We applied that same way of thinking when introducing the Plant Empowerment principles. The crop managers were encouraged to combine their own plant knowledge and observations with the data – and then we let the results speak for themselves.” The group-wide adoption of the Plant Empowerment principles has further been supported by webinars organised by the Implementation Partners and the internal sharing of knowledge and experience between the crop managers.
Striking the right balance
Despite the strong focus on data within the group, the owner does not believe in focusing on the data alone. “You can’t replace a crop manager,” she says. “It’s about striking the right balance between crop management experience and data. In spite of everything we measure, it’s still very difficult to have high-quality data about every important aspect, such as the thickness of the leaves and the total amount of foliage, so it’s important that our crop managers also observe what’s going on inside the greenhouse. On the other hand, a plant might look healthy but the data might reveal underlying problems that could affect production. So sometimes the plant verifies the data, and sometimes the data verifies the plant.”
“Even in high-tech greenhouses, a grower’s work revolves around making decisions based on unpredictable factors,” she adds. “In fact, we’re managing risks all day, every day. But I prefer certainty over risks, especially in crop production! The Plant Empowerment principles help us to minimize the risks and optimize our decisions based on data-driven indicators – but always combined with our crop managers’ own understanding of the plants,” Anne Claire concludes.