Friday, May 25, 2007

We buyout Bjorn, a Greenhouse Collapses

As it often happens with partnerships made in heaven, hell soon rears its ugly head. Bjorn became more and more argumentative in the past week and he made it very plain that he regrets becoming our business partner.

Chuck tried to be very diplomatic with him since that first flare up, but to no avail. Bjorn started talking more and more about returning to Sweden, “where greenhouses are made of glass and herb growers have common sense.” The personal digs aside, we decided that the situation could not go on.

So Chuck and I stuck our heads together and Chuck did some budget figuring. We approached Bjorn with an offer to buy him out, and—not surprisingly—he accepted. As of yesterday, it’s back to a two-way partnership for us!

It’s much the same as before, except now we have four greenhouses. Our very first one still grows 400 heads of Boston lettuce each and every day. The second one produces 600 heads of Pak Choi per day, while the third greenhouse turns out 600 heads of Specialty Lettuce on a daily basis.

The fourth greenhouse is now up and running, growing 2500 single herbs and ready to harvest them when they mature and thereafter per each 24-hour period. We should thank Bjorn for shaking us up a bit and getting us into herb production. We have advance orders for our herbs well into 2008.

The nutritional mix for the four greenhouses is pretty much the same. Our basic ferts, as well as all our supplements, come from Advanced Nutrients, a Canadian company with an excellent reputation in greenhouse hydroponics.

We use two elements only of their standard 3-part fert, Micro, Grow, and Bloom. We never use Bloom, since we don’t want our Lettuce, Pak Choi, or Herbs to bolt and go into flower production.

In addition, we use Grandma Enggy’s Humic and Fulvic Acids, as well as her Seaweed Extract in each greenhouse, except we don’t use Humic Acid in herb production, since the herbs are sold with their roots attached and this particular additive turns the roots of our vegetables black.

There is a reason for that. The word “humic” comes from humus, which is the rich, black, fertile organic substance that our grandmothers grew their vegetables in. Humic Acid manages to recreate that fertile growing mix in a hydroponic setting.

The only drawback—and it’s not really a drawback if you cut the roots off the lettuce or pak choi before marketing—is that Humic Acid turns the hydro nutrient mix deep black and it does stain the roots.

Since the roots of our lettuce and pak choi are immersed in our Nutrient Pond underneath the polystyrene boards that they grow in, this discoloration of their roots is not a problem. The roots get cut off and discarded during the processing of the harvested produce.

Herbs, on the other hand, sell better with their roots still attached to show how fresh they are, so we just skip using Humic Acid in greenhouse number four. Golden Honey Fulvic Acid is perfectly fine to use, as is Seaweed Extract.

The cytokinins, auxins, and gibberlins in seaweed are plant hormones governing many biological processes in our plants, such as cell enlargement, cell division, differentiation of vascular tissue, root growth and intercellular communication.

Most greenhouses these days are actually polyhouses, being that they are constructed of a double layer of air inflated polyethylene which provide better insulation during the cold winter months then does a single layer of glass.

Glass, however, does have its advantages, and this was at the crux of our argument with Bjorn. Glass lets in more light. A glasshouse is less humid. And glass is more durable during adverse weather conditions.

Wet snow, for instance, could cause a polyhouse to collapse, while it might just damage one or two panes of glass in a glasshouse. I don’t know of any studies done on the seismic durability of polyhouses versus glasshouses, but luckily we don’t operate in an earthquake zone.

The life expectancy of the covering of a polyhouse is only three years. This crucial fact somehow escaped our attention, with regard to our Greenhouse number one.

We built our Boston Lettuce greenhouse over five years ago and I didn’t pay much attention to the details of construction, I left that up to Chuck. Well, to make a long story short, the polyethylene fabric of our outer covering gave way and our greenhouse deflated.

Luckily, the material is not only supported by air but also by steel tubing. So this saved our Boston Lettuce crop from being squashed. But it was quite costly to hire extra help for removing the collapsed material without damaging the lettuce growing operation underneath.

We had to truck in brand new polyethylene sheeting and replace some damaged inflating fans. Our Nutrient Pond had to be drained and flushed and refilled with nutrient solution, since some dust and debris fell into it from the collapse and the renovation.

So I mixed not only our basic ferts and the Grandma Enggy products, but also Piranha, Tarantula, and Voodoo Juice at half strength. Using these root colonizers at full strength in hydroponics might result in too much of a good thing.

They add live microorganisms to the root zone of our Boston lettuce. Piranha provides beneficial fungi, Tarantula contains helpful bacteria, and Voodoo Juice supplies friendly microbes to strengthen the roots of our plants, make them grow big, and aid the absorption of vital nutrients.

Studies have shown that plants treated with these three products grew one and a half to twice the size of untreated plants. Since our customers appreciate large, zesty heads of lettuce, we are grateful to Advanced Nutrients for providing us with the tools for growing them.

We also add Barricade to our nutrient mix in order to strengthen the cell walls of our lettuce plants, enabling them to ward off pests and pathogens of many different kinds. Bacterial, fungal, and viral infections cannot penetrate the tougher cell walls. Neither can the sap sucking mouth parts of invasive insects.

We managed to handle this emergency quite well and hopefully with Bjorn gone now things will return to a calm, productive normalcy which will ensure that we meet our daily quotas and keep our retail outlets and customers happy with the quality produce that our Nutrient Ponds grow.

posted by silvio @ 4:28 AM   0 comments

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Greenhouse Construction Costs Rising

Every partnership must have its first argument. With the three of us, it happened sooner than later. Chuck and Bjorn were at each others’ throats with regard to the construction plans for our fourth greenhouse.

Bjorn, coming from Europe and being a traditionalist, wanted us to build an old fashioned glasshouse to house our herb-growing operation. Chuck, being a frugal man, wanted us to go the cheaper route and build an air-inflated, double layered polyethylene, Quonset-type greenhouse, the same as our other three.

Glasshouses cost a lot more to construct, but they also last longer and protect whatever you’re growing from the elements to a greater degree. Glass also lets in more light than polyethylene, although it increases your heating costs since it usually is a single layer of glass.

I threw my vote behind Chuck, not only because I’ve known him longer, but also thinking of the costs and the risky nature of branching out to grow cooking herbs. “Why don’t we grow medicinal herbs, like monks in medieval times?” I asked, only half facetiously. My question was ignored by both of them.

The argument was rekindled the next day when we received the quote from the construction company that built our previous three greenhouses. Their quote was a full 20% higher than before, essentially for the same job.

They defended their quote by pointing to the skyrocketing cost of gasoline and the corresponding price increases in steel tubing, the polyethylene covering, the boiler, cement, electric power, and labor.

Bjorn argued that since the polyhouse is now more expensive, we should reconsider glass. Another day wasted in useless argument.

I distanced myself from the two of them and occupied my time mixing up a new batch of our nutrient solution for the pak choi greenhouse. Our supply of Grow and Micro is running low, so I contacted Advanced Nutrients to get their distributor to ship us some more.

Grandma Enggy’s Humic and her Fulvic Acid we seem to have plenty of, but her Seaweed Extract has been all used up. We have to go without it until the next shipment arrives. Luckily, we still have a lot of B52, so our pak choi plants won’t have to go without vitamins.

We sprayed the pak choi with Scorpion Juice just last week, because our yellow sticky traps caught a few whiteflies. I suspected the staff of leaving the greenhouse door open. I had them tape vertical strips of plastic on the outside of the door that would keep most insects out, if the person entering was careful enough.

We use so much Barricade, that we have to keep reordering more and more. It is a very effective product, since (knock on wood) we haven’t had any bacterial, fungal, or viral infection in any of our greenhouses in a long time.

The few whiteflies that flew in got captured by the sticky traps. I told Bjorn that there used to be a really effective Advanced Nutrients product called Bug Away that they temporarily discontinued, since the government wanted them to label it an insecticide, which it isn’t.

Bjorn once again toured our other three greenhouses and was finally convinced that a polyhouse has its advantages and therefore agreed to have our fourth growing facility built just like the other three.

We sealed our newfound spirit of cooperation with a pitcher of Czech lager in our neighborhood pub.

posted by silvio @ 9:44 PM   0 comments

Thursday, May 03, 2007

A Swedish Partner--We Decide to Grow Herbs

The negotiations with Bjorn have come to an end, resulting in a brand new, three-way partnership. This Swedish man who wandered in off the highway has purchased a third of our three-greenhouse lettuce and pak choi growing operation, and we are jointly building a fourth greenhouse to grow nothing but choice, gourmet herbs.

As you may have guessed from my name, my family is originally from Italy. Chuck is Anglo-Saxon, mainly of Scottish background. Now we have Bjorn. It’s almost like a joke—did you hear the one about the Italian, the Scotsman, and the Swede who set up a hydroponic herb-growing operation?

I only hope that the punchline is a good and profitable one. One thing we did convince Bjorn about. We’re going to attempt a Nutrient Pond technique, instead of the Winding Canal technique that he uses in Sweden.

The reason for this is that the contractors we work with here are used to building this type of greenhouse and the learning curve would be time consuming and expensive getting them to change the specs. One change will be that the Ponds have to be narrower so the workers can reach each individual herb more easily.

The three of us agreed that Basil should be our primary herb, since it comprises a full 40% of Bjorn’s profits in Sweden. Basil has a funny history. In many cultures it used to be reviled as being in league with the dark powers, but in India a strain of Basil is revered as a sacred herb and used in Hindu funeral rites.

In Italy, Basil is considered the herb of love. It is liberally mixed with Oregano in many tomato based recipes. It has a pungent taste and a strong fragrance and prefers warm temperatures. It can’t stand being cool.

In addition to Basil, we went through the whole list of herbs and came up with Oregano, Marjoram, Dill, Cilantro, and Mint as profitable herbs that lend themselves to hydroponic production. I wanted to include Coreander, but it seems that it is a difficult herb to grow profitably.

The herbs we plan to grow all prefer a warm greenhouse (70 to 80º F) with moderate humidity. Some herbs are more susceptible to fungal infestation than others, so we have to keep the humidty down.

We’ll be using Advanced Nutrients base ferts Micro and Grow, and pass on the Bloom, since we don’t want our herbs to go to seed. The different germination times for each herb will be handled in the incubation room.

Basil takes 7 days to germinate; Oregano, 7-15 days; Dill, 7 days; Marjoram, 10-15 days. The temperature and humidity in the incubation room will be higher. Temp at 75-85º F, while the humidity will be in the 70 to 80% range.

Seedlings will be nourished with a half strength fert and vitamin mixture, the vitamins being supplied by B52, an excellent product containing all the essential B vitamins to keep down plant stress.

The rooting and initial growth period will be approximately 2 to 3 weeks for most of the herbs, while the mature plant’s growth period to harvest will be an additional 2 to 3 weeks, depending on the specific herb. This is much faster in a hydroponic setting, than in soil.

Basil will require additional Magnesium, which is contained in Sensi Cal Grow. The Calcium will help all the herbs develop crunchy leaves. The Potassium Silicate in Barricade will strengthen the cell walls of the herbs and help them resist insects and pathogens.

Additional induced systemic resistance will be supplied by regular sprayings of Scorpion Juice. This will be done every three weeks in order to inoculate the herbs against the major bacterial, fungal, and viral infections that some of them are prone to.

For instance, Basil is susceptible to Pythium, which is an insidious fungus, as well as to aphids, which can vector many viral diseases. When not receiving full sun, Basil is especially vulnerable to pathogens.

We plan to augment sunlight as needed with a bank of 600W Metal Halide lights, arranged in such a pattern as to maximize the area covered and the lumens supplied. In the winter, this artificial, very powerful lighting will be on 14 hours per day.

Whiteflies, leafminers, and spider mites like to munch on Oregano, so an ultra fine mesh screening will be in place on each and every ventilation opening in the greenhouse. In additon, yellow sticky traps will be hung at regular intervals and these will be monitored daily to detect any bugs before the infestation reaches a serious stage.

Our fourth greenhouse will be fully automated in terms of temperature, humidity, pH and EC of the nutrient solution, heating, cooling, lighting, and slight corrections in the acid alkaline-balance, for instance, by the addition of small quantities of pH Up or pH Down, depending on the circumstance.

posted by silvio @ 10:32 PM   0 comments