By teasing tray plants and strawberry cuttings a little with a special temperature treatment with steam, it’s possible to supply disease free plant material without using chemicals. That’s the principle of the Plantsauna in a nutshell. After years of development, the concept is now ready for practice. “The first orders have been placed, and in the beginning of 2021 the first plants will go into the sauna at Dutch nurseries,” tells Cas Barel from the originally Norwegian company Plantsauna AS.
How it works
To jump right in: What’s the secret of this technique? “That is the combination of the special, airtight room with a humidity of one hundred percent and a very strict temperature regime. We bring, at the moment one pallet at a time, the plants into the plant sauna, and treat them with a set recipe of temperature and time.
The sauna procedure was discovered by the University of Florida and NIBIO, a Norwegian research institute. Marten Barel and Ole Myhrene developed the technique further, to make it applicable in practice. This technique will be even further developed by Cas Barel and Simen Myhrene from Plantsauna AS.
Next, they let the plants cool down. Because of that, the plant makes certain enzymes. “Those make that the plant can endure a second temperature treatment of a much higher temperature, again for a certain period of time. We regulate the temperature. The steam is the energy bearer. After condensation on the plant, inside the plant our desired temperature is reached. The enzyme guards the plant from this high temperature, while several pests like Phytophthora cactorum, strawberry mites and powdery mildew, are killed.”
The last couple of years, together with breeding company Fresh Forward, the concept has been tested a lot, upon which patents applications were filed for the technique, the sauna and the strict protocol. It’s now the time for commercialisation. The first orders from Neessen Aardbeienplanten & Aspergeplanten from Grashoek (NL) and van Rapo from Roosendaal (NL) are already in. Both growers will receive the first ones next spring, others will follow them soon.
Johan Neessen (Neessen Aardbeienplanten & Aspergeplanten), Cas Barel (Plantsauna AS) and Werner Hack (Rapo)
Less drop out
What they will see, is that there is a lot less drop out, tells Cas. “Many reports from tests at, among others, Fragaria Holland B.V., PC Fruit and Proefcentrum Hoogstraten, show that too. Phytophthora, a vascular mold, showed very little drop out. That means a decrease of 5-7% as opposed to non treated plants. The growth is more equal, with a result of a better yield and in the next stage a better start and a healthier start.”
Extra varieties and crops
Where the first growers start with the innovation next spring, Plantsauna is looking which crops can also profit from this technique. “We’re already testing with flower bulbs and raspberry starting material. Tests have already been done, and this spring the trials will be expanded to larger practical trials. We also look at the steaming of larger quantities of strawberries. And at the effects of the treatment on new varieties. Up until now, the various varieties we’ve treated have responded well to the technique. We will keep testing on new varieties, so that growers around the world can start with clean plants. There is already a lot of interest.”
For more information:
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.
“[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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
Productizing AI – embedding your model
When productizing AI, there are numerous challenges you can encounter, such as how to apply your AI model to a process or people, stabilizing data and models, how to keep your model accurate in changing environments and over time, scaling, and how to grow or augment the capabilities of your AI model.
Running a successful machine learning Proof of Concept (PoC) with a new algorithm is only 10% of the effort required to productize it and get actual value from it. The remaining 90% can be divided into things you need to do to make a usable product and things you need to do to make a useful product.
To make a usable product, you need to zoom in on the technical implementation of making the product available to your users. To make it useful, you should look at embedding the product into a process for the users. First, however, what exactly is the difference between a PoC and a usable product?
First of all, PoCs are not meant for production. Products need to work all the time, any time, and under shifting circumstances. During your PoC, you find the data you are looking for, make a copy, and start to clean it up and analyze it. In production, your data source has to be connected to a data platform in real-time, safely, and securely; the data stream has to be manipulated automatically and compared to/combined with other data sources.
During your PoC, you either have the luxury of being able to talk to your future users and work with them to design a solution, or you have no users at all, and you are designing a technical solution. For a product, you have users that need to understand that solution, and people responsible for keeping the technical solution running. Thus, a product requires training, FAQs, and/or support lines for it to be usable. Furthermore, you just create a new version for your one use case in a PoC. Products require updates, and when you have rolled out your product for multiple customers, you need a way to test and deploy your code for production (CI/CD pipelines).
“At Itility, we’ve developed our Itility Data Factory and AI Factory that cover the building blocks and underlying platform for any of our projects. This means we have the usable angle covered from the start, so that we can focus on the useful angle (which is more customer and use case dependent),” the company stated.
Pest detection app – from PoC to useable product
“The Proof of Concept phase of our Pest Detection App consisted of a model that can perform the narrow task of classifying and counting flies on a glue trap based on images taken by greenhouse team members. In case they missed a picture or if something went wrong, they could go back and take another, or directly fix it in the dashboard. Quite some manual checks were needed.
“Our PoC-world was simple, based on one single device, one single user, and one single customer. However, to make it into a useable product, we needed to scale and support multiple customers. Then, the question of how to keep data separated and secure arises. Moreover, each individual customer/machine requires a setup and default configuration. So, how to configure/set up 20 new customers? How do you know when to build an admin interface and automate onboarding? At 2 customers, 20, or 200?”
Of course, you might have questions, such as ‘how does counting flies help my customer? How to create value from this information? How to recommend decisions and take action? How does this AI application fit in the business process?’. Step one is to change your frame of reference from a technical/data perspective to the end-user perspective. This means continuing the conversation with your customer and seeing how the proven PoC fits into daily processes.
“You also have to closely follow the process for a longer period of time, you need to join operational and tactical meetings to really understand what actions are taken every day based on which information, how much time is spent on doing what, and the reasoning behind certain actions. Without understanding how the information from your model is used to create business value, you will not get to a useful product.
“In our case, we discovered what information was used to make decisions. For example, we discovered that for some pests it was more important to follow the weekly trend (for which you don’t need super high accuracies) whilst others require action at the first sign of a pest (which means it’s better to have a couple of false positives than to have even one false negative).
“Additionally, we discovered that our customer had previously had a ‘bad’ experience with a similar tool claiming to have accuracies it could not deliver in practice. Why would they trust ours? We took this trust problem head-on and made accuracy and transparency a key feature of the product. We used this information to make our product useful by adapting the application to the end user’s working methods, and by increasing transparency in the interaction, giving the user more control over the application,” the company continues.
What is the biggest challenge?
“In our fly-counting scenario, we can talk about our accuracy score all we want. However, to be useful, the user (a greenhouse specialist) needs more than percentages. What is needed is to experience it, and to learn to trust it. The worst thing that can happen is when your users compare your results with their own manual results and there is a (large) discrepancy. Your reputation is ruined and there is no room to regain trust. We counteracted this by adding software to the product that encourages the user to look for those discrepancies and correct them.
“Our approach is thus to make the user part of the AI solution instead of presenting it as a system that is going to replace the specialist. We turn the specialist into an operator. AI is augmenting their abilities and the specialists remain in control by continuously teaching and guiding the AI to learn more and make corrections when the environment or other variables drift. As an operator, the specialist is an integral part of the solution – teaching and training the AI with specific actions.”
Click here to see a video with more details on the operator-centric approach.
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