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IPS Business Tour leads plant breeders to propagation in climate cell

Last week, plant breeders joined the International Propagation Seminar in the South Holland province in the Netherlands. After day one, with a number of interesting lectures about which we published a (photo) report, day two was all about company visits to Certhon and De Ruiter (or to Artechno and Rijk Zwaan for the other group). 

On behalf of Certhon, sales engineer Martin Veenstra talked about growing in nurseries, the so-called 'indoor propagation'. 

Andrea Huegler, R&D Engineer and Agronomist (Certhon) lead the tour at Certhon

Martin Veenstra, Sales Engineer at Certhon said: "People probably know us mainly from big greenhouse projects, but for the last ten years we've also been doing many 'indoor farms'," Martin told the professionals in attendance. "We define that as 'growing in a fully controlled environment.'" 

Martin briefly touched upon the company's activities as a greenhouse builder and robotics developer, to quickly move on to what people came for: indoor propagation possibilities. 

The R&D room is currently empty, but the toplight and interlight lighting are still visible from the previous trial

From sugar beets to tomatoes in the desert
The projects range from fully autonomous lettuce cultivation to hybrid- or fully LED-lit tomatoes in semi-closed greenhouses. Less obvious crops also pass by, such as the dendrobium (a certain type of orchid), research and development facilities for seed suppliers, and even a project for a sugar beet breeder.

"Currently we are working on a project for a commercial facility that will grow beef tomatoes in the desert without daylight. The beauty of that project is that the recipes for their cultivation were developed here in our Innovation Centre," Martin noted. 

The participants listening closely 

Total package
"When we started these indoor farming projects about ten years ago, we knew we had to do our own research to get better at it, to develop better technology and provide our customers with better recipes. So we started, like everybody else, with converted shipping containers. But growing tomatoes in a container is not that practical and cannot be scaled up to commercial projects. Therefore, we soon started building our own innovation center, where we can do trials with various crops."

This graph shows how everything can be controlled optimally; every day is the same.

Soon Certhon decided not to start with the usual vertical farming crops such as lettuce and herbs. Instead, they wanted to see the opportunities in vegetable and fruit crops, with a closer focus on soft fruit. In doing so, they breed the plants themselves, so the whole growing cycle is closed off, from seed to harvest.

"When developing a project like this, it allows us to look at every aspect. Some people focus on light, others on climate or irrigation. In this way, we get the opportunity to approach it as a total package. Because if one of the components is not optimal, the end result is not optimal either."

At the Certhon Innovation Centre, strawberry propagation is done in-house

Everything under control
"The way we build our growing rooms allows us to control everything in the cell," says Martin. As an example, Martin refers to the system they built for Rijk Zwaan in Fijnaart. "Here we focus on the right climate, with very precise control, not only in terms of temperature but also for factors like humidity. We can then bring that in relation to when to turn on the lights, how much CO2 to dose to the young plants, or how to match that to your irrigation system. All of that can be monitored very accurately in such a facility."

2nd from left Timo Kleijwegt, Certhon Sales manager USA and at the right Andrea Huegler, R&D Engineer and Agronomist 

Controlling can be done according to pre-programmed recipes, which always work the same no matter where you are. "Because you're completely independent of what's happening outside, what we do here in the Innovation Centre is exactly the same as what people in, say, Abu Dhabi can do."

Martin contrasts that with a greenhouse, where, no matter how good it is in terms of design, to some extent you always have to react to your environment. "You don't really control, you react. In facilities like this, though, it's you who set the goals. That way you avoid the surprises that can occur in an environment that is not completely controlled."

Hans van Herk of fellow IPS organizer Propagation Solutions with Edwin Vanlaerhoven and Martin Veenstra (Certhon)

Better planning
That control also means that you are no longer dependent on the seasons in propagation. "A great example is Deliscious. The lettuce grower decided to do his own growing because of their automated growing system, and with the contracts with supermarkets they couldn't plan based on three weeks of growing in the summer and three months in the winter." It was decided to do everything in-house, from sowing to harvesting in their 7-acre greenhouse.

The group was split into three to ensure everything was 'corona proof'

"The plants are automatically sown in trays, then they go into the cultivation rooms. During the cultivation process, the plants are automatically divided by a robot. In this way, the grower has new plants ready at every moment of harvest that can be taken straight into the greenhouse. This is a huge advantage when planning the production, and because everything is automated, the lettuce is only touched by human hands at the moment of packaging, just before it goes to the distribution center." 

Fred van Veldhoven with Certhon

For more information:
International Propagation Seminar

For more information:
ABC Westland 555
P.O. Box 90
2685 ZH Poeldijk
The Netherlands
Tel: +31 174 22 50 80
Fax: +31 174 22 50 81