On the morning of the 4th October 2007, 15 growers and 1 ‘ring in’ (me) from Australia rendezvoused at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. Some had come direct from Australia, others like me had been lucky enough to spend some holiday time in Europe before being part of the 2007 European Greenhouse Study Tour.
This was the 3rd such study tour of Europe organised by Graeme Smith – known to us all as the principle of Graeme Smith Consulting; as long-serving President of the AHGA; and, for the sixteen participants (and others who have previously joined one of Graeme’s tours) now famous as the perfect host and tour leader.
For two weeks the group experienced the latest in Dutch and Belgian research; viewed state of the art growing facilities; undertook 5 days of specialist greenhouse training at the Practical Training Centre Plus (PTC+) in Ede; as well as, two days at one of the largest horticultural trade shows in the world – Horti Fair.
For me, after working in horticulture for over 25 years, it was the experience of a lifetime, and being able to share it with an enthusiastic group of tomato, herb, lettuce and rose growers was a privilege.
During our tour we visited the Greenhouse Improvement Centre an industry funded research facility of around 11,000sqm under glass divided into 11 compartments where a variety of trials operated at any one time. Current trials included a tomato production trial to achieve 100kg/sqm in 12 months. At the time of our visit they were on target to achieve this goal through supplementary lighting and a closed greenhouse system. The Centre also featured an aquaponics trial utilizing waste water from fish production as a nutrient source for tomato production.
At Steenbergen we visited the Rijk Zwaan demonstration greenhouse where some of the latest tomato varieties bred by Rijk Zwaan are assessed and trialed. It was interesting to be able to taste test many of the varieties and observe their various attributes. The Research Station for Vegetable Production (RSVP), formerly the Belgium National Research Centre for Strawberries also conducts variety trials in tomatoes, capsicum and strawberries. RSVP also research and trial in the areas of cultivation techniques, new growing systems, disease and pest management, as well as waste management.
The future of greenhouse production is clearly linked to the implementation of appropriate and sustainable technology. In Barendrecht we viewed a “mobile gully system” for hydroponic lettuce developed by Hortiplan. The system enables the seedling crop – planted in gutters – to move in a loop via a chain drive system from one corner of the greenhouse to the other. Eventually the loop is completed within the greenhouse where the mature crop can be harvested and packed in the adjoining packing area. The quality and uniformity of the crop was impressive as we were able to track all stages of growth.
World famous Penning Freesias in Honselersdijk featured a unique ‘ground-loop’ system which stores excess heat or cooled water in subterranean wells to be used on demand. The stored energy can then be converted via a refrigeration/condenser unit to maintain optimum root zone temperatures for in ground freesia and amaryllis production.
Themato in the Westlands with their ‘never say never’ approach, was a fascinating study of how a good grower’s skills can be readily adapted to a totally new crop, based on sound principles.
The Themato greenhouse and hanging gutter system was originally designed and built by Innogrow in conjunction with Priva for Roma tomato production. The greenhouse is a 1.4 ha structure converted to a ‘closed’ system, utilizing stored energy from subterranean wells, similar to Penning Freesias. Because the system is so efficient in relation to energy loss and heating, a further 4 ha ‘open’ greenhouse was heated with the excess energy.
Market forces lead the family owned business away from tomatoes to strawberries. The greenhouse environment and growing system rewards the grower with significant reductions in energy costs through this unique heating and cooling system; condensing transpired air (to reuse in irrigation); and, concentrating CO2 by only venting when absolutely necessary.
Horti Fair runs over four days in the RAI Exhibition and Conference Centre, Amsterdam. It is one of the largest horticultural trade exhibitions in the world, with around 87,000sqm of exhibition space. Over 980 exhibitors took part and attendance was close to 47,000 people.
As we made our way to the RAI, our instructions from Graeme were clear: “Use the first day to get around and try and see everything on display, then on the second day stop and talk to exhibitors”. Sound advice! On day one I followed Graeme’s advice. I was systematic, paced myself, didn’t stop too much for idle chats and by around 4:30pm, a little weary, but satisfied I started to make the long walk to a familiar exit – only to stumble across a whole hall that I hadn’t seen!
Day 2 was less hectic and a great opportunity to talk to industry people from around the world, visit some of the specialist lectures that were offered and generally look in awe at the length and breadth of our industry. There was everything on display from the latest releases in floriculture to biodegradable tomato clips to massive boilers and power generation units. My favourite piece of equipment was a robotic arm that was capable of taking 1,000 to 1,500 cuttings per hour, that were annoyingly uniform and then accurately placed into propagation containers (in this case 175mm squat pots) in a predetermined pattern.
The Dutch horticulture industry is well established and has a long history; however after the devastation of World War II the parallel development of its education and training system has enabled it to become not only the leader in horticultural produce, but a leader in horticultural technology and innovation. PTC+ in Ede is one of 5 campuses of agricultural and horticultural training that has its foundations in the years of rebuilding directly after WWII.
As an educator involved in horticultural training, PTC+ was my main reason for joining the tour. After discussing the attributes and physical layout of PTC+ many times with Graeme, I thought I was well prepared for what I was about to experience.
The site at Ede has student accommodation, canteen and purpose-built greenhouses and classrooms to enable training and practical experience in all aspects of greenhouse management. The trainers have strong industry experience (some still working in the industry and teaching part time) and the well-equipped facilities enable immediate access to real practical learning. In the short time we were there, we experienced training that didn’t just show us how a system or piece of equipment worked, but we were challenged to understand the principles behind the technology and look at the ‘what if?’ type scenarios. This is what good education is all about.
The other strength of PTC+ is their strong links with industry and up to date research. For the Australian greenhouse industry to develop and prosper it is important that the industry commit to and support education and training, as well as recognising the important role that research plays (especially in an Australian context) in improving what we do.
The Horticulture Industry in the Netherlands provides us with many lessons for the future of our industry. Even for the Dutch, horticulture is a fiercely competitive industry – but the generosity and openness that we experienced in information sharing from growers, researchers and educators must be its greatest strength. The future of horticulture in Australia is developing, adopting, adapting and sharing information and technology to suit our unique circumstances.
The future is also equipping ourselves with knowledge. This can come from industry conferences, recognised training, short courses, industry focus groups or study tours.
It’s important that we look at what’s happening in other countries and learn. The European Greenhouse Study Tour provides us with that opportunity. Thanks to the foresight of people like Graeme Smith; the support of our industry association AHGA; and, funding from Horticulture Australia Ltd another 16 people had an enormous door opened to a room full of ideas, contacts and possibilities.