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Deep winter greenhouses grow food in winter wonderland

It is winter in northern Minnesota, and the outdoor growing season is long gone. But leave it to Minnesotans to invent a way to grow greens in the winter using materials you can easily get up here. Lumber, glass, big rocks, dirt, and sunshine is all you need for a Deep Winter Greenhouse.

The Deep Winter Greenhouse (DWG) has gone through several re-designs, but it all started with a book by Carol Ford and Chuck Waibel in 2009 titled The Northlands Winter Greenhouse Manual. They lived in Chippewa County, Minnesota, several hours south of here, but the idea caught on with growers in the far north too.

So, what is a DWG? It is a passive solar greenhouse that captures the sun’s light and heat during the day and stores the heat it in the earth to recirculate at night. The greenhouse is oriented east-west with a large south-facing glass or polycarbonate wall built at an angle that will catch as much of the sun’s energy as possible, given the latitude. The other walls are solid and very well insulated, often with reflective interior surfaces, and the north wall is sometimes earth sheltered, if the landscape permits. It is the dirt, and sometimes gravel or large stones about four feet deep under the greenhouse, that act as a battery to store the heat that’s captured during the day. That heat is blown underground with a fan and then ducted out and up into the growing area at night.

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“The future of indoor and greenhouse vertical farming depends on physics for high quality production”

Affinor Growers has signed a commercialization agreement with Britespan Building Systems to engineer and manufacture new polycarbonate greenhouses co-designed by Affinor and Britespan.

Britespan currently designs, engineers, and manufactures prefabricated buildings in Canada and internationally. Affinor conceived the “Atlantis” greenhouse by adding a polycarbonate material to the outside surface of the Britespan building trusses, dramatically improving certain key performance characteristics of commercial greenhouse systems. The Atlantis Greenhouse optimally accommodates Affinor’s vertical growing technology and processes.

Affinor will be the exclusive worldwide dealer of the Atlantis Greenhouse and Britespan will be the exclusive worldwide supplier of the Atlantis Greenhouse Structure for a term of ten years, with automatic 2-year renewals thereafter.

Affinor and Britespan have also agreed to work together to manufacture the first full-scale demonstration greenhouse to be built adjacent to Affinor’s current lease location on Page Road in Abbotsford.

CEO Nick Brusatore commented: “The future of indoor and greenhouse vertical farming depends largely on physics for high quality production. The Atlantis Greenhouse design accommodates the environmental requirements for automated, vertical farming production, to prepare us for radical climate changes and the various environments we face globally. I expect that the Atlantis Greenhouse will be very competitive and environmentally superior.”

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The role of the Spanish greenhouse industry on the EU market: an overview

The previous Spanish season wasn’t even completely over when growers, buyers, and sellers were already meeting to discuss the 2021/2022 season. This is the result of years of uncertainty, which got worse because of Brexit and COVID-19, but not only that: prices are also ever-increasing from all sides. Brexit has not had that big negative impact, but this fall, the energy crisis added a new level of concern. This is yet another factor that can influence the Dutch import season, which is also always heavily dependent on weather conditions. In early November, Ton Bouw of The Greenery shed some light on the Spanish vegetable season.

At that time, the season had been going on for two months. Generally speaking, Spain has been starting the season earlier, recently. That raises the question of whether Spain has benefited (even) more from a faster decline in Northwestern growers’ supply. This is a result of the energy crisis, that is not immediately evident to Ton.

Ton Bouw

“[The region of] Almería started early, especially with zucchini, which occurred even two weeks in advance. But that isn’t necessarily related to the situation in the Netherlands. Growers in Almería didn’t see that coming, considering that they cannot foresee an energy crisis for them. The early start is much more of a consequence of last season’s good prices in September and October. Growers were hoping to get those prices again at the start of this season. That, however, didn’t happen.”

Pointed peppers stand out
Zucchini is a true specialty of this Dutch fruit and vegetable importer. These are available year-round at The Greenery/Hagé International. They have green as well as yellow and special globe zucchinis. “This summer’s prices were good. It’s been a fairly normal season so far. Although September and October’s prices were significantly lower than last year,” says Ton.

The same is true for cucumbers. These, like zucchini, are a relatively short-lived crop. Growers bet on these crops because they hope it will give them greater flexibility in uncertain times. “There’s not a big increase in acreage there either. Nor has the season’s start really been the best.”

At the same time, Almería’s bell peppers’ acreage did grow significantly – Ton estimates it by ten to 12%. “The season started quite normally. As it oftentimes is the case, it did with inferior quality due to nights too warm. You need a few good cold nights to improve products’ firmness. But none of them happened at the start of the season. That meant the products’ shelf life sometimes wasn’t as expected. But by now, that problem seems to be gone. The prices weren’t very good, but that’s not unusual, as long as the Netherlands and Spain are both on the market. Now that the Netherlands is off the market, Spain has more opportunities.”

Quite unusually this year, growers have planted a lot more pointed peppers, besides block peppers. Bouw reckons about 15% more than last year. “This crop is really on the rise. You can no longer call it a specialty.” The acreage of eggplant has grown too, but not by much. Prices, too, increased at the start of the season.


“The Netherlands had less product for two weeks. Spain could thus hitch a ride on higher prices. These have, however, normalized again. People will begin to switch now that the Netherlands is off the market. Eggplant, nevertheless, faired pretty well at the beginning of the season.”

Zucchini declined faster
Southern Spain was spared terrible weather until early November. Growers are, nonetheless, already dealing with the usual problems, especially in zucchini and cucumber, Ton observes. “Virus problems are plaguing zucchini growers in the Níjar area, where many zucchinis are grown. That’s similar to a lot of the cucumber regions such as Motril. This has been an issue for years, yet it seems even worse, this year. That’s partly because it was relatively warm in September and October.”

“Some growers had to pull out their plants earlier. In terms of availability, the usual hard period for zucchinis should come earlier this season. Availability could already decrease in November and December. That’s usually from the end of December to mid-February. The virus is partly to blame, but also because of the season’s early start. This is a short-lived, fast-growing crop, so it will also finish sooner. Now, there are (in week 45, ed.) several especially cold nights, with temperatures of three to four degrees Celsius. Then, the plants just stop growing.”

There are no clear alternatives to zucchini in the summer. “Truly competitive growing countries don’t come in at this time of year. Neither does Italy. They use most of their own production for local sales. Italy also only buys from Spain. Morocco, meanwhile, is starting up with zucchini too. But they cannot compete with Spain in terms of quality,” Ton continues.

(New) opportunity for Spanish cucumbers
It is difficult to find zucchini anywhere else in winter. Not the same can be said with regards to tomatoes, and now also cucumbers. Growers in the Netherlands, but also in other northwestern European countries, have invested in lighting, which is quite a novelty for cucumbers. “If you asked me four months ago what that would mean for growers in Spain, I’d have said Dutch supermarkets would prefer lit cultivation cucumbers by far. Energy prices have, however, risen so suddenly.”

“So, I think this change may not be as abrupt after all. Supermarkets have now realized that local production isn’t always more reliable, not now that there are growers who aren’t farming this winter. I expect that, in the future, there will be more risk spreading. Spain can benefit from that. Not in tomatoes, but certainly in cucumbers. Though, that remains to be seen. That’s why there are parties who will still come to Spain. Especially now that there are fewer lit cultivation cucumbers,” Ton explains.

Deals being made earlier
The term, risk spreading, has been mentioned. This is certainly not a new term. But, in light of recent events, everyone is (again) very aware of the importance of proper risk spreading. “Agreements are being made much earlier, which usually happened in May or June. This year it was in April. That’s because of COVID-19, as there’s an increased focus on supermarkets.”

“The hospitality industry is picking up, in Spain as well. Yet, people are still looking for more stability. People have seen what happens to prices if you don’t fix anything. You could suddenly be confronted with huge demand. Then, you pay top prices if you can get any product at all. Everyone remembers the images of empty shelves,” says Bouw.

And growers, too, want stability. “All materials are becoming pricier. Fertilizer costs 30% more, and power even 200% more. Spanish greenhouses don’t use nearly as much energy as those in the Netherlands. But the warehouse machinery and refrigeration consume electricity. Even solar energy cannot always make up for that.”

It is precisely in trying times that investing in good mutual relationships pays off, notes Ton. “In our case, these are investments that started 30, 40 years ago. That’s when we pioneered importing from Spain. By buying products in good and bad times, you build trust. That pays off in times of crisis.”

Unpackaged cucumbers
Spanish growers must take the even earlier closing of deals and program filling into account.  But can they do that? They seem to respond every year to previous years’ successes. That is the case this year with zucchinis. “Yes. You can’t make deals without the growers. They don’t just put anything out there. Just like the practice of sending random wares to the Netherlands has become increasingly less commonplace. Growers, however, always have some room.”

“They use this as a buffer when things go wrong. But that still doesn’t mean that there’s still availability, if you demand products at the last minute in September or October. They could still be available, but no longer at the desired price or customer specifications.” Ton says those specifications are becoming increasingly important. “Large German supermarkets, for example, are now definitely opting for unpackaged cucumbers without a plastic seal. Even in winter.”

Serious machinery
When it comes to processing products, packaged or not, people are increasingly considering automation. That is also happening in Spain. That became clear to Ton during a recent visit. Higher minimum wages are an important reason for this. “There used to be, say, 12 or more people needed in the zucchini packaging process. That number can be significantly reduced by using machines. Workers are becoming scarcer. People sometimes no longer want to work in greenhouses or warehouses.”

“That’s why machines are coming into the picture. And it’s serious machinery that you don’t see everywhere, even in the Netherlands. Those machines now make it possible to work according to all packaging specifications. That’s also necessary because of  the increased online orders.” With regards to labor, cutting back the maximum working hours is another consideration. “That’s now limited to close to 40 hours a week. So, there are more shifts in warehouses. That’s to make up for the lost flexibility.”

Moroccan competition
Labor is less of an issue in Morocco, where costs are different. That is a matter of concern, particularly in Spain, which is in a fierce competitive battle with the North African country over greenhouse vegetable cultivation. It is well known that there is a steady decline in tomato acreage in Spain, while that is growing in Morocco. But, the cultivation of other greenhouse vegetables is also gradually increasing there. “Looking at hard numbers, the loss of tomato doesn’t represent much yet, but that’s increasing,” says Ton.

“Moroccan zucchinis have been around for a while and do compete with those from Spain. There’s still, however, far better availability, quality, and volumes of the Spanish product. There are cucumbers from Morocco, but these don’t go to the Northwest European market. There have never been that many bell peppers, but this is slowly changing. Growers from Spain and also places like Israel have begun setting up bell pepper crops. Here, however, cheap labor doesn’t play as big a role, like it does in tomatoes and, to a lesser extent, zucchini.”


Spain has a long season and favorable climate with lots of sunshine. So, it remains a formidable player with or without the expansion in Morocco or the increased lit greenhouse cultivation in northwestern Europe. “When there are shortages, people always look to Spain. You see that again now that there are problems in the lit cultivated crops,” says Ton. “But also this summer with, for instance, floods in Germany and South Limburg. Then many zucchini were lost. We then automatically look for product in Spain for our year-round zucchini.”

“I’m sure that when Spain shows what it can do, especially thanks to mechanization, customers will return. For now, Spain is increasingly trying to find its own path. Until ten, 15 years ago, people relied heavily on the Netherlands. That dependence is now decreasing. Our good relations with Spain remain, and that’s what really matters,” Ton concludes.


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Microbe useful for keeping berries kept alive on biofortified strawberries


Scientists are interested in enriching hydroponic strawberries with silicon for strong bones and against mineral starvation, as well as increasing the keeping quality of products. In search of an answer to one question, scientists have discovered an important player in the epiphytic microbial community on the surface of berries

A group of Italian scientists, while studying the prospects for biofortification of strawberries, determined the effect of silicon on the microbial community of berries, publishing the results in an article in the journal Agronomy 2021 on the MDPI portal.

“Mineral malnutrition is a phenomenon that affects two thirds of the world’s population in both industrialized and developing countries and has a profound impact on human health. Considering that strawberries are a popular product, enriching them with beneficial compounds looks like a promising solution to the problem.

In the case of fresh berries, fruits and vegetables, an increase in the content of beneficial compounds can be achieved either by improving genotypes, through breeding programs, or through the use of certain agronomic methods, for example, biofortification.

In particular, agronomic biofortification is achieved by supplying plants commonly grown in soilless production systems (such as hydroponics) with special mineral fertilizers aimed at increasing the concentration of a target nutrient in edible organs.

Strawberries consistently lead the berry world top. Garden strawberries are considered very valuable not only for their sensory characteristics, but also for their potential health benefits, as they are especially rich in antioxidant compounds such as vitamin C, anthocyanin, phenolic compounds and flavonoids.

However, strawberries do not store well after harvest due to their high metabolic rate, which causes rapid dehydration, loss of firmness, deterioration in color and tissue softness.

These problems lead to economic losses and the industry is constantly looking for ways to prolong the shelf life of strawberries.

To date, post-harvest methods aimed at extending the shelf life of berries have included either physical (high and low temperatures, irradiation and the use of a modified or controlled atmosphere) or chemical (fumigation, calcium dipping, coating, ozonation) methods and treatments.

However, the impact of the biofortification approach on the post-harvest life of strawberries is also noteworthy.

The amount of data collected over the past decades demonstrates that, among other micronutrients, silicon (Si) plays a fundamental role in promoting human health by participating in bone formation and mineralization.

Silicon, the second most abundant element in soil, is not essential to plants. However, the inclusion of Si in fertilization programs has shown positive effects on crops, improving resistance to biotic and abiotic stressors with increased yields.

In the context of biofortification, several studies have been carried out to increase the Si concentration in edible plant organs.

Based on the results, the best candidates were selected: strawberries, leafy vegetables and green beans.

Interestingly, the biofortification of strawberries led to differential modulation of biologically active compounds, namely, a decrease in the content of phenolic compounds and an increase in flavonoids.

In addition, various experiments have demonstrated that approaches to biofortification using mineral nutrients can also increase the shelf life of agricultural products.

The aim of this research work was to evaluate the effect of silicon biofueling of hydroponic strawberries on the keeping quality of berries after harvest.

Strawberry plants were grown under controlled conditions and an increasing concentration of Si was added in a standard nutrient solution. The strawberries were then evaluated for quality parameters (i.e. titratable acidity, hardness, Brix and sweetness) and storage was then simulated using different temperatures and time intervals.

In addition, strawberries were also evaluated for the composition of the epiphytic microbial community in order to find out if it could be influenced by the diet established for the plant, and in the specific case, by the Si biofortification program.

The results showed that biofortification did not significantly affect the hardness of the fruit, while at the highest Si levels, an increase in titratable acidity was observed.

Analysis of the microbial community for the first time revealed the presence of probiotic bacteria, namely: Bacillus breve, which may have interesting technological features in the form of strains adapted to the fruit sphere of strawberries.

In addition, as the level of Si biofortification increased, depletion of potentially pathogenic microorganisms such as Escherichia coli and Terrisporobacter glycolicus was also observed.

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