Horticulture is in the midst of a transition. From the linear 'take - make - waste' system to a more circular model. New high-tech cultivation systems like hydroponics demand different requirements from all inputs, including the growing medium. This is related to technical properties, but increasing attention is dedicated to sustainability, after-use, transport miles, automation, and food safety.
Nowadays, the growing media industry is challenged to make use of new, circular and sustainable raw materials, other than, for example, peat and coir. High-tech cultivation systems accelerate this movement. "Our innovation team was launched to specifically look at alternative business models, in different directions than our traditional model that is about peat extraction for growing media," says Sjors Beijer from Klasmann-Deilmann. Six years ago, Sjors joined the company as innovation manager. "How can we diversify our business model, do "more with less" and portfolio of services and products towards our clients, to reduce or even minimize the use of peat? And that's how we came in touch with Maan Biobased Products."
The quest for alternatives
They had developed a new solution and were looking for ways to market and further develop the product. And that's how Growcoon was created. "The Growcoon is the result of many years of innovation, development, and testing," Sjors continues. "The first steps were already made back in 2008. Some six years ago, when Klasmann-Deilmann and Maan Biobased Products joined forces, we were able to make the Growcoon a success. Today we're able to produce 500 million Growcoons a year, moving towards 1 billion in 2025."
"Maan Group can be best described as a company of inventors and innovators," Patrick Alferink, partner manager at Maan Biobased Products. "The Group consists of 3 divisions: Maan Engineering, Maan Special Products, and Maan Biobased Products. Together, we possess the skills, intellect, and equipment to translate innovative ideas into sustainable, marketable products. Growcoon is our greatest success story so far and has attracted quite some attention, also outside the horticultural domain. This year we were awarded the prestigious business award 'Koning Willem l Award' for SME's, a great honor and reward for our efforts."
The Growcoon is a small knitted net made of biopolymers (fully biodegradable materials). This net can be put around young plant plugs and allows the plant to grow and develop healthy roots. The Growcoon makes it easily transplantable. These biopolymers can be compared to the material that is used for medical stitches. "Stitches degrade in the human body without leaving any trace or harmful materials, and the Growcoon does the same in the soil," Patrick explains.
But the innovation created from this partnership doesn't stop at this Growcoon. "We have already developed different sizes and compositions of the Growcoon. The next step is to make a Growcoon tailored for tissue culture propagation in laboratories and larger sizes to replace plastic pots (when producing herbs in pots, for example)," says Patrick. Sjors adds that they are also working to develop entirely new substrates out of biodegradable polymers, "Specifically plugs and mats tailored to vertical farms, hydroponics, and young plants. The goal is to launch this product at the next year's edition of the GreenTech Fair in Amsterdam. In the long run, we see applications also in other domains, but we must move step-by-step in the development process. It is not easy to come up with new materials that meet the criteria of existing, highly automated and efficient cultivation systems – and growing media used today."
Everyone is involved
In addition, Maan Group is working on machines to manufacture such materials. "Our moonshot is that in this way, we can bring growing media production right to the grower's greenhouse," Patrick says. "We like to dream that in the future, oversea substrate distributors, or even growers, can manufacture their growing media in-house and exactly according to their needs. Compare it if you like with your 3-D printer for growing media. In this way, we can save on waste, but also costs (and CO2 emissions) for transport, distribution, and storage, making everything way more efficient and resilient.'
Innovating in the substrate space is paramount now that the sector seems to be headed toward a future wherein peat-reduction is no longer an ambition but a pre-requisite. Yet, it won't be as easy as it seems. "I still think we'll need peat for the coming years, just because supply from other sustainable resources does not meet the current, increasing demand. It is about quality, but also about the quantity available and the pricing thereof," Sjors points out. "I do see the need and urgency to change our mind about peat and its use, and Europe takes a leading role in developing alternatives and stepwise reduction on the use of peat, especially on a consumer level. When you look at the professional use of peat, I do hope that 50 years from now, we have reduced the need for it to an absolute minimum and have increased the use of circular, local, and sustainable alternatives to the max. This can be achieved through innovation in our substrate itself and even more so through cultivation system innovations like hydroponics and vertical farming that will allow us to produce more with less input – including less use of the substrate. Here I see space for more innovative solutions in established cultivation systems to increase the resource use efficiency. The Growcoon is a perfect example of such an innovative solution."
Patrick Alferink and Sjors Beijer
It is important that the efforts horticulture makes towards more sustainable ways of production are visible to society. We can achieve this through storytelling, which is often underestimated. Therefore Klassmann-Deilmann is a contributor to EatThis, a platform that is supported by an expanding group of international horticultural companies and organizations. EatThis wants growers and agricultural specialists to team up with designers, economists, politicians, and creative thinkers to come up with new ideas for the future of food and connect with society. Change can't be made without involving the entirety of the supply chain, including the end consumer. "I reckon that the horticultural sector, especially in the Netherlands, could focus much more on how to get in touch with its final consumer and, in addition, engage in the dialogue about food with society," Patrick remarks. "Once you know the end user of your product, you can work on impactful innovations and improvements of your product. As I said before, Maan Group is a company of inventors, and we like to bring our markets forward and develop solutions for often complicated problems. I agree with Sjors that the horticulture sector can extend its influence when working with parties from outside. If you look at the current state of our world, our food production, and supply, that seems more important than ever before."