Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Expanding to Pak Choi and Specialty Lettuce

The fast-talking potential partner vanished as quickly as he came, and Chuck and I were once again left to our own resources in the expansion process. Luckily, Chuck had done his homework. He had purchased an adjacent property that was big enough for two slightly larger greenhouses. He had checked with local authorities, to make sure that it had the proper zoning for agricultural use.

Then he approached the same greenhouse construction company that had built our Boston Lettuce greenhouse some time ago. They were still in business, in fact they were thriving. Regardless, they managed to fit us into their busy schedules, and construction on the two additional greenhouses is well on its way.

Instead of 100 feet by 30 feet, as this one is, the new ones will be twin Quonset Huts joined together, 110 feet by 25 feet each. So from a 3,000 square foot greenhouse, we are expanding to two more greenhouses, each 5500 square feet in size.

This will enable us to produce 600 heads of pak choi, as well as 600 heads of specialty lettuce per day, in addition to our daily quota of 400 heads of Boston lettuce. This will position us as major players in the local fresh produce market.

Construction is progressing at a spectacular speed, considering that it is still the middle of winter. In fact, the builders had to employ two large outdoor heaters equipped with blowers to keep the concrete foundations from cracking.

Galvanized steel pipes, curved appropriately, will hold the double-layer of polyethylene sheets, that will have heated air forced in between them for rigidity and insulation. The long, winding system of tables and tanks will comprise and hold the Nutrient Ponds which will be supplied with nutrient solution through an intricate system of pumps and pipes.

Light, heat, EC, and pH sensors along the way will report back to the central computer system, which in turn will govern the lights, central boilers and heating pipes, nutrient feeds from the reservoir tanks, and the acid-alkaline balance of the nutrient solution.

Small tanks on the side will be attached to the automatic system, enabling the immediate correction of any acid-alkaline imbalance, for instance, by adding pH Up or pH Down in minute quantities (but not at the same time). These very helpful agents are made by Advanced Nutrients, the company that supplies us with all our nutrients, root colonizers, supplements, and additives.

The twin greenhouses will both house a bank of 55 600W Metal Halide lights with electronic ballasts, equipped with appropriate bulbs on the blue end of the spectrum for the growth stage of our vegetables, which will be harvested before they have a chance to enter the flowering stage and go to seed.

Chuck contacted all of our local produce outlets and gave them an idea of when they can expect our first expanded delivery. With California produce having become more scarce and pricey, the merchants were more than eager to sign up to receive our shipments.

We have alerted Advanced Nutrients as to our increased need for the appropriate products. They advised us to stick with Micro and Grow as our basic nutrients, and continue to supply the roots of our new plants with Piranha, Tarantula, and Voodoo Juice. These provide beneficial fungi, bacteria, and microbes respectively.

By colonizing our root systems, these helpful microorganisms enhance the growth of our root balls and facilitate nutrient absorption. In addition, Sensi Zym provides over eighty types of enzymes to our root zone, which are living organisms that munch on plant debris and turn this debris into easily absorbable nutrients.

Additionally, we use Grandma Enggy’s Fulvic Acid and Grandma Enggy’s Humic Acid, which provide much needed organic growth enhancers, much like the content of humus, from which the name of Humic Acid is derived. Despite the name, Humic Acid is not overly acidic, so it doesn’t throw off you pH.

B-52 and Grandma Enggy’s Seaweed Extract supply the vitamin needs of our produce. The first product contains all the major B’s, along with natural hormones that increase the plant’s energy through increased metabolism. It has an NPK of 2-1-4, since part of its content is Potassium Nitrate, Magnesium and Potassium Phosphate, as well as Magnesium and Potassium Sulphate/Sulfate, and Urea.

Seaweed Extract is like a multi-vitamin. I’ll never forget when our Boston Lettuce crop all of a sudden looked weak and anemic and I called the Advanced Nutrients tech line in panic. The very helpful voice at the other end of the line asked if we were feeding our lettuce with vitamins.

To make a long story short, we started mixing Seaweed Extract into our reservoir, and almost immediately the lettuce leaves recovered their vigor, their overall health improved and their growth increased tremendously.

Seaweed Extract not only contains very specific growth stimulants, but also natural antibiotics, immune system boosters, as well as two vitamin A precursors, vitamin C, Vitamin K, and Vitamin E.

For that extra organic touch, we also feed our lettuce Mother Earth Blended Super Tea Grow, that is made from Alfalfa Extract, Canola Meal, Citric Acid, Crab Meal, Earthworm Castings, Fish and Shrimp Meal, and Sea Kelp. It has an NPK of 4.8--1.8--4.3, so be sure to calculate your total EC or ppm accordingly.

Anytime an additive or a supplement has an NPK rating, it is necessary to calculate your overall NPK for your nutrient solution. This is crucial, since too much Nitrogen can cause the tips of your leaves to turn yellow, while too much Phosphorus or excessive Potassium have other adverse effects.

In order to ward off pathogens, we always add Barricade to our nutrient solution, usually the night before in our pre-mix tank. Although it takes a little extra time to dissolve, Barricade is an excellent product that uses potassium silicate to strengthen cell walls and make your plants immune to many pathogens and pests.

A very important additive where lettuce is concerned—and I’m sure the same goes for pak choi—is Sensi Cal Mg Mix Grow, which provides three types of much needed Calcium, including a Calcium chelate, helping you grow crunchy, robust heads of lettuce that will sell very quickly off your grocer’s shelves.

A vital ingredient in lettuce production is the repeat customer. Once your lettuce is allowed to grace the salad plates of the purchaser, the taste and freshness and vigor will convince him or her to seek out your produce again and again.

posted by silvio @ 10:58 PM   0 comments

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

California Deep Freeze, EC-PPM Discrepancy

With the deep freeze hitting California, that state’s vegetable and fruit crop has suffered a billion dollars worth of damage. Governor Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency and asked for federal aid.

One man’s disaster is another man’s opportunity. Chuck was excited when he heard the news and immediately began contacting our outlets to see how many additional heads of lettuce they required.

Prices of leafy vegetables are going to skyrocket, since California is North America’s major producer of lettuce and salad greens.

The plans for our expansion have moved ahead and another possible partner has appeared, who would like us to build not two but ten new greenhouses, along the lines of the controlled environment experiment that our 3000 sq. foot Boston lettuce growing operation has perfected.

Instead of producing 400 heads of lettuce per day, once the ten greenhouses are built on a slightly larger scale, they could each produce 600 heads of lettuce or pak choi per day. Chuck is still reluctant to grow spinach, since according to Cornell University, it is a difficult crop.

Indoor hydroponic horticulture is definitely the wave of the future. I see on the web that the Saudis are doing it, they’re growing tomatoes and cucumbers in the desert in Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) fibreglass greenhouses in the desert.

Chuck always finds something new to worry about, even though our business future looks rosy at the moment. He noticed on the Advanced Nutrients Nutrient Calculator that their EC and PPM numbers didn’t match our EC and PPM numbers.

We called the tech guys at that great Canadian company, and they clarified the discrepancy. It seems that there are different standards in converting EC to PPM, and that our metering system was using a different conversion standard from theirs.

EC or Electrical Conductivity measures the ability of the Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) in our Nutrient Pond to transmit electricity. Depending on how quickly the charge is transferred from one electrode to another in the meter, results in a reading of EC 1, EC 2, EC 3, etc.

The German-made Utech EC meter which we had incorporated into our computer controlled setup converted EC 1 to 640 parts per million (PPM). Electrical Conductivity is measured in microsiemens (mS) per centimetre (cm).

Advanced Nutrients, on the other hand, is using a Bluelab Truncheon meter that is manufactured in New Zealand, and it reads EC 1 as 700 PPM. Volia! Thus the discrepancy.

Chuck contacted our computer whiz immediately and had him rewrite the code for the logarithms that control the interconnected metering system that runs our mostly automatic hydroponic grow operation.

The whiz was burning the midnight oil for several days and nights in a row, until he managed to incorporate the new conversion data into the system. The hardest part was compensating for the extra 60 PPM that the German meter omitted to count.

Advanced Nutrients told us that they find the EC measurement much more reliable than PPM so they are emphasizing that reading in the future. Their Nutrient Calculator will carry both numbers, however, since so many people are habitually using PPM-counts and are not yet thinking purely in EC.

Since because of the discrepancy our PPM readings were now slightly off, we decided to flush our entire system and remix our nutrient solution which we then feed into our Nutrient Pond.

In addition to our basic fertilizer, the best hydroponic plant food for our crop, Micro and Grow (without the Bloom factor), we mixed in SensyZym, Piranha, Tarantula, and Voodoo Juice to strengthen the roots of our lettuce with beneficial enzymes, fungi, bacteria, and microbes respectively.

Since we experienced some root problems previously, due to the overly zealous root colonization of these very effective products, we now use them at half strength. Their own technical guys recommend this for hydro, but you can still go full strength in soil.

Then came the ever-important Scorpion Juice, which imparts what we call Systemic Acquired Resistance (SAR) to our lettuce. It enables our precious crop to fight off invading pathogens and pests very effectively, indeed.

Barricade is a potassium silicate product that we find takes a bit of extra time to dissolve but it’s worth the wait. It strengthens cell walls and imparts another layer of immunity to the plant. Diseases, bugs, invading parasites are not allowed to enter the cells, thus saving the lettuce from many possible maladies.

As Kermit once said “It’s not easy being green,” and I’m sure our lettuce would echo this sentiment. In order to ensure the bright green appearance of our crop and thus make it more marketable, we mix in Grandma Enggy’s Humic Acid and Fulvic Acid into our Pond. These very special ingredients aid the photosynthesis process in chlorophyll formation, among their many benefits.

B-52 is administered to reduce plant stress, much the same way that my B-Complex 50 reduces my stress and elevates my ability to cope with the daily grind.

Mother Earth Super Tea Grow enhances the organic nutrients that are contained in the Grandma Enggy products. All vegetables benefit from rich organic food, such as that contained in humus, which is where Humic Acid derives its name.

Sensi Cal Mg Grow is included in the mix, in order to ensure that our lettuce receive the much needed Calcium that they require for good health. The Magnesium aids in Calcium absorption.

Chuck is running around with all these business plans in his attaché case detailing Capital Requirement Estimates, Annual Production Cost Estimates, Estimates of Construction Costs, Market Patterns, Price Charts, etc.

It seems that Fuel and Energy Costs add up to a large percentage of running a large-scale operation that is proposed, so Chuck is being true to his visionary self and exploring alternate fuel possibilities.

Sharp Instruments sells large format solar panels that could supplement our electrical requirements and ensure that in case of a power failure, we could rely on an alternate source of energy.

I wonder if after all this hoopla about frozen California produce dies down, whether our new quasi partner will still be as enthusiastic about our expansion plans. Only time will tell.

posted by silvio @ 10:30 PM   0 comments

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Mighty Force of Nature vs. our Greenhouse

You’ll never hear Chuck or I speak disparagingly about the scientists who are trying to warn us about climate change. Especially not after what Mother Nature had in store for us this past week.

It started off very reminiscent of that Winnie the Pooh cartoon, “Blustery Day.” Dried leaves started blowing all over the place and the occasional small tree branch was seen flying.

It grew into a full-fledged windstorm with hurricane-strength winds gusting to 65 miles per hour. Our poor greenhouse had withstood a snowstorm, a power outage, and torrential rains, but this was to be its true test of endurance.

You might remember that we produce 400 heads of Boston lettuce a day in our 3,000 sq foot Quonset-type greenhouse, which is covered with a double-layer of polyethylene. I thank my lucky stars that I stuck to my guns during the planning stages and insisted on galvanized steel supports. Chuck wanted to save money and go with aluminum.

The other thing I made sure of was that the foundation anchors went extra deep into our concrete flooring, even though our neck of the woods doesn’t usually get winds over 50 mph. The poly fastening system used to attach the greenhouse covering to the computer-bent framework had to be extra strong as well.

You have to make sure prior to the strong winds that your door and any openings are firmly shut. Otherwise, the wind grabs the entire structure and your covering becomes a sail.

I’ve seen glazed glass covered greenhouses with half their panels missing after a storm, with the materials strewn as far as 60 feet away.

The other danger is knocked-down trees. In spite of the temptation to surround your greenhouse with shade trees, it’s best to be at a distance from them. Nothing ruins your business quicker than a fallen cedar destroying your greenhouse and with it your cash crop.

A large branch did fly and hit the side of our greenhouse, but luckily it had soft needles instead of sharp protrusions, so it did not puncture the polyethylene. Besides, the material is pretty tough, even though the projectiles in this devastating storm were flying around like pieces of shrapnel.

I heard mention of the impending storm on the 11pm TV news so I drove immediately to the greenhouse to make sure that all the openings were properly fastened.

Also, I thought it prudent that the water and the power should be temporarily shut off, in order to prevent a surge of electricity from frying our sensitive equipment or a rush of water coming in to create havoc on our Nutrient Pond.

I had about an hour before the storm hit, so I decided to make sure that the feeding of our lettuce continued uninterrupted while this emergency was taking place. So before I shut of the electricity, I measured the parts per million of our nutrient solution.

At this stage of their vegetative growth (our crop is in perpetual vegetative phase) the mature plants near the harvest end of the pond require a ppm reading of 1300, but the solution at that point only read 1100 ppm. So I had to add some ingredients.

Our basic fertilizer is Grow and Micro (without the Bloom—we do not want our lettuce to start flowering). I added some of our basic fert, plus Humic Acid and Fulvic Acid, two dynamite supplements that mimic the rich humus of the world’s best soil, since they are derived from a layer of dense, organic “leonardite” that is mined from on top of some coal beds.

I measured again, and found that this manoeuvre raised the ppm of this section of the Pond to 1250, still not quite enough. So I poured in enough Scorpion Juice, to raise the level to the desired 1300 ppm.

Scorpion Juice imparts induced systemic resistance to many pathogens and pests, and thus is an invaluable tool in a horticulturalist’s satchel.

Prior to shutting off the reservoir pumps, I made sure that the pH level of the pond was at the desired level of 5.6 for our hydroponic crop. The reading showed 5.0 pH, which is too acidic, so the number had to be raised by adding the proper amount of pH Up, a very fine Advanced Nutrients product.

By this time the wind was literally howling outside and I shut off the power just in time. You never know with these freak storms, some electrical charge could build up and lightning could strike the sources of our power, so it’s best to be on the safe side.

It was almost two in the morning and Chuck arrived, out of breath. I only opened the door a crack to let him in and shut and locked it immediately after. We watched as Mother Nature gave us a spectacular show.

We also prayed. Although Chuck professes to be a non-believer, from the corner of my eye I saw him make the sign of the cross as the fierce winds shook our greenhouse to its very foundations.

As it is, we are very lucky. Aside from a few minor rips, no major damage was done to either the structure or the double-layered covering of our greenhouse. But you can bet your fresh-picked salad that I insisted on galvanized steel construction for our two planned greenhouses, and Chuck didn’t fight me this time.

I also won with regard to growing pak choi in one of them, while Chuck decided that specialty lettuce should be grown in the other one, instead of spinach. “No use growing a difficult vegetable,” was his entire argument.

Specialty lettuce is the crinkly kind, usually with a red tinge around the edges. Some people add it to their salad to provide color. Since many people consider Boston lettuce as part of the specialty family, Chuck felt more comfortable deciding to grow another type of “specialty lettuce,” rather than yet another unknown vegetable.

Pak Choi, sometimes known as Bok Choy, is also called Chinese mustard cabbage. It can be sautéed for five minutes and with the addition of stir-fried tofu, it can make a complete meal.

It is a popular vegetable in the ethnic Chinese communities in many cities around the world, including the urban center in our vicinity. I’ve researched the market thoroughly and have already lined up buyers for 600 heads of pak choi per day.

Our planned greenhouses will be slightly larger than our present one to enable us to produce 50% more of our cash crops. We’ve done the math, and our daily sales will make the construction of the new facilities cost-effective.

But you can firmly bet that the anchors securing the framework—the bow, rib-brace, purlin, and cross-brace—of our planned greenhouses will be sunk extra deep into their solid concrete foundations.

We inspected the entire structure the day after the storm and found that some of the locking pieces had come loose, while a few scrapes and tears needed patching. The framework withstood the onslaught quite well, only some nuts and bolts had to be tightened afterwards.

Also, every time the power is shut off the computer-controlled timers and logarithm calibrations have to be reset. It’s like having to reprogram your DVD player and VCR after every power outage.

Brand new pH and ppm and EC readings had to be taken to make sure that the continuous operation of our Boston lettuce production line was not impeded. I’m glad to report that with the help of the irreplaceable Advanced Nutrients products that we use, our daily output of 400 heads of lettuce was not interrupted—neither did the quality of our produce suffer.

A lucky start to the New Year, indeed.

posted by silvio @ 9:21 PM   2 comments