Sea of pot plants and millions of roses

Held for the second successive year, the HortiContact tour is fast becoming a not to miss event, writes Steven Vale.

HELD over three days at the Gorinchem exhibition complex, the Dutch HortiContact show is a great place to meet all the country’s important technical companies and vegetable seed breeders and catch up on some of the latest developments.

The day before the show starts, international visitors have an opportunity to sign up for a tour of some interesting facilities and nurseries in the Westland area. In Part One of this report we looked at one of the glasshouses belonging to Van der Lans and visited the recently-opened Dutch Horti Center.

The tour continued with a visit to the pot plant nursery of SV.CO (Strijbis Verbeek) at De Lier, and a family business that can trace its roots back to 1965. Today, the four nurseries provide 16ha of production area and 120 fulltime jobs.

The four locations grow 100 different varieties of pot plants, including celosia, geraniums, primulas, poinsettia, lisianthus and chrysanthemums, in six different pot sizes. Kalanchoe, Europe’s number two pot plant, is currently the biggest crop for the firm, which since 2010 has been run by director Jelle Strijbis.

The company’s main claim to fame was in 1974, when it was the first grower in the world to install a raised rolling table system. Rolling tables are the norm today, but in the early 1970s was viewed as something for the distant future. The nursery received visitors from all over the world keen to have a look at the Logiqs Agro system, and the 6.5ha site, which still contains 4,500 rolling tables, was on the agenda of our visit.

Mr Strijbis takes sustainability seriously, and where possible tries to use biological control, recycled materials for packaging and a main goal is to further reduce the use of peat, which is now down to 10-15%. “We’d like to reduce it to zero but we’re not there yet,” he said.

The company director took us through the process, which begins at the cuttings stage where experienced staff can pot as many as 800 an hour. From here, the pots are irrigated and lifted onto a rolling table, which is brought into the first glasshouse where the RH is 80-85% and temperature is 20-21C. Covered by plastic, plants received no further water until the covers come off, which is generally 10 days later.

Two weeks after potting, the young plants are topped, to encourage them to generate more flower heads. This is done by a machine during the summer and by hand in the winter, but plants in 9cm pots are also topped by hand. All tips are thrown discarded.

3-5 weeks after potting the plants are spaced to give them more room to grow, and the tables are moved into the second glasshouse where the temperature and RH are reduced to 18.5-19C and 70% respectively. Depending on the season are ready for sale just seven weeks after potting during the summer to 10-14 weeks in the winter. The 400w HPS lights allows them to grow over 60 different pot chrysanthemums year-round.

“We need lots of different varieties,” added Mr Strijbis. “The Russian market is for large flowers whereas German consumers prefer smaller ones. The UK is somewhere in between where the market is for a wide variety of colours.” Peak seasons in Europe are Mother’s Day and Easter, when a maximum number of 80,000 plants leave the site a day.

One of the big changes that has taken place within the last few years is that the speed of delivery has increased, and potential European buyers know that once an order is placed they can expect to receive it within 1-2 days. Many now wait until the last minute to place an order, and as a rule of thumb plant numbers have fallen per order but their frequency has risen.

Just 10% of the plants we saw were sold, and another 15% are sold via the auction. As to prices, these vary between 50 to 70 Euro cents/pot. “We are content with 65 Euro cents.”

Looking ahead, the company is currently constructing a new 4ha site in De Lier, which will not only have a faster internal transport system, but also LED lights, which Mr Strijbis reckons is the next stage for the company.

The new structure will also help to increase efficiency because it will handle only 9cm pots, leaving the site we visited to deal purely with 12cm sizes.

When finished, the new structure will increase SV.CO’s production area to 20ha, staff numbers levels rise to 150, and pot plant production increase to 25 million plants a year.

15.5 million roses a year

Roses were on the agenda for the second nursery visit of the afternoon, and a tour of the 2006-built 4ha site of Fransen Roses. The focus here is on producing 11 million stems a year of the variety Red Naomi (bred by Schreurs), supplemented by another 4.5 million stems of Myrna (Fransen is the only grower worldwide with this variety) from a 2ha site 500m away.

We were greeted by company boss Aad Fransen, who explained that the 4ha glasshouse has a span width of 12.80m, is covered by three Svensson energy and shading screens, with climate control taken care of with Priva.

Filled entirely with 325,000 Red Naomi plants, he reckons it is much easier to grow one variety than 10-12 different ones. Stems are harvested every day of the year. For much of the year stems are harvested twice daily, at 6am and 3pm – even on Christmas Day. On New Year’s Day they take just one cut at 9am. For 10-15 days each summer they take three cuts.

Plant density is 7.5/m², and average annual stem production is 17kg/m², roughly equivalent to 300 stems. Sold for an average price of €0.45-0.50 cents, each sq.m. generates around €150. However, the costs are high.

For example, it is specialist work to learn how to pick roses. Also, the first stems are taken four months after planting, but it takes 18 months for a rose plant to reach full production. On the plus side, the plants we saw have been in the ground four seven years and the grower reckons he can continue to use them for another 3-4 years.

The stems are fed into a 6,000 stems/hr capacity Bercomex grading machine, which sorts them into 18 different categories of length and head size. This machine also handles rose stems from the second 2ha nursery.

Mr Fransen reckons he is the only rose grower in the world that can stamps text or a logo on the rose heads. The precise details of how he does this are under wraps, but it is increasing in popularity and he reckons to have supplied 10,000 of them for Valentine’s day.

The grower is passionate about producing the highest quality product in the most sustainable way possible. “Growing roses is all about the major challenges of mildew, sustainability and cost price,” he said.

Water is already re-cycled for 100%, and biological control is used has replaced 80% of chemicals, and Mr Fransen reckons if a medal was awarded for environmentally-friendly rose growing then he would currently be in silver position.

“The final 20% is the biggest challenge but we want to achieve it and be in a gold medal winning position.” Mildew control is the challenge. Currently controlled by a weekly dose of chemicals, they are working on a biological solution, which for now is under wraps. “Five years from now we should be able to increase biological control to 95%.”

Finally, the combined effects of competition from Kenyan producers and the economic crisis has seen the Dutch area of glasshouse roses plummet from around 1,000ha in 2000 to just 250ha today.

The focus with the survivors is on producing the highest quality product for the lowest cost price.

The HPS lights in the current glasshouse provide 17,000lux (265 mmol). Generating a maximum temperature of 13-14 degrees C, they usually burn at full power for 20 hours a day from November to February and for five hours a day during the summer at 50% intensity.

He reckons LEDs will come in 5-10 years, and that price will be the most important reason to invest in them, providing it comes down. Half of the nursery’s current electricity requirements for lighting and heating is generated by a 2.7Mw Crop Heat processor, with the other half bought in, and the grower supplies hot water to his neighbours.

This year’s gas price is currently running at an average of around €0.25 cents/m³, and C02 is also supplied from local industry and pumped into the glasshouse at 800-1,000ppm.