In focus: Taking innovation in horticulture to new heights

To never have to work on your knees in the earth again is every farmer’s dream. To this end, former farmer Rob van de Meulengraaf has developed a cultivation system for tray plants, such as strawberries. The plants are grown on racks at a height of 50 centimeters, in an almost fully automated process. This approach has several benefits: no root diseases, the plants don’t get wet, they don’t stay submerged after rainfall and there is no growth of weeds.

Rob van de Meulengraaf started down the road to innovation when he was forced to find another location for his company in Best in the Netherlands. He wanted to grow strawberries as tray plants to make the cultivation process more efficient and more comfortable for farmers.

“Working on your knees between the strawberries is no longer necessary. It is also very labour-intensive,” Rob says.

In 2012 Rob started building a setup to mechanize the cultivation process, together with Hans van Asseldonk of GEGE machinebouw bv .

The increase in growth efficiency also meant that the entrepreneur had to develop new cultivation techniques. The result is use of fewer fertilisers and pesticides, a higher resistance to disease and less plant death. Rob is now able to fertilise more than double the amount of plants with the same amount of fertilisers and pesticides as before.

This system also allows him to control the growth and flower formation of his plants with much greater precision. For example, he can track the exact amount of flowers made by a plant, as well as its stage of development.

A multifunctional system does all the work

Rob had big ambitions when he started this project. He built a tray field of 8,000 square meters at a height of half a meter, where around 560,000 tray plants can be grown. When plants are grown normally, in the earth, only 35 plants can be grown per m², whereas Rob has 70 plants per m².

The production system consists of 200 meter long steel gutters on raised racks. The trays fit exactly in the cutouts, allowing the plants to be placed easily on the gutters. The cultivation system moves across the gutters, and is a multifunctional installation capable of sprinkling, fertilizing, cutting plant material and removing dead leaves.
“Now I only need personnel for cutting and harvesting,” the patent holder says proudly.
After one year, Rob began selling his plants to strawberry farmers in the Netherlands. The number of plants has been increasing every year, lifting to 1,200,000 plants last year.

International interest

A fellow farmer from Belgium was the first to purchase the entire cultivation system. Another farmer, Frank van Alphen from Galder, now has 5 ha of the setup. There is interest in the cultivation system all over the world, with Korean and Russian farmers in particular very interested in this Dutch invention.

Rob thinks that there should be more collaboration in the horticulture sector. He would like to share his knowledge and demonstrate his system to others to inspire them. Farmers who are interested in the cultivation system can contact him directly.

Rob says that there are many possibilities to further expand the mechanization of the system. However, that expansion has a price tag, which means the needs colleagues who are willing to invest.

This newly developed cultivation system is used for growing strawberries as tray plants on elevated racks. The system allows for a high plant density and various tasks are mostly automated.

Making a start

Rob advises young farmers to first get a job in a big agricultural company, before starting their own business.

“The big players buy out the small farmers, whereas there are often opportunities to start something new within a large company,” Rob says.

“Nowadays you do see more organic farmers who combine the farm with a nursery or a store with local products. Starting a production company is difficult, because you have to compete with the big players. Look for collaborations.”

What will the agriculture sector look like in 2050?

“We will have to think carefully about how we can meet the growing demand for food in a responsible way. The advantage of plant cultivation is that people generally don’t mind when they find out that there are 70 plants on 1 m², but for animals that’s a different story,” Rob says.

He is surprised at consumers’ lack of knowledge about sustainability: “The other day, I was invited to participate in ‘Best sustainable’, a group of people who think of ways in which the municipality of Best can increase sustainability. I introduced myself as a sustainable farmer, which prompted someone to ask: ‘So you’re an organic farmer?’ Consumers often think that sustainable is organic.

“In my eyes, sustainable farming is making optimal use of nature for growing plants and minimizing harm to the environment. Practice openness where possible to show what you do and what the agriculture sector is all about.”

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