Huy Greenhouses: Pioneers in Coir
Leamington grower successfully pioneering with growing media and varieties
Facilitating as Rijk Zwaan's demo greenhouse has made Leamington based greenhouse grower Howard Huy a familiar face in the Canadian greenhouse industry. The owner of the 10 hectare Howard Huy Greenhouses, is known for his forward thinking way of growing by adapting innovations such as high wire cucumber cultivation, supplemental lighting and innovative trellising systems. We had a chance to speak to the grower, who appears to be one of the first growers that introduced coir growing media in North America.
Howard Huy's owns 10 hectare of greenhouses spread out over three locations. The biggest one is 7 hectares. There is one more just next door to it, and the third one is eight kilometres away. This last one is only three quarters of a hectare. The newest section of the 7 hectare premises is a 1.5 ha state of the art glass Venlo greenhouses that was built only a year ago. The rest of the seven hectares are double layer poly hoop houses. According to Huy, the venlo greenhouses are gaining popularity in the Leamington area. He said that a few years ago it was all double poly greenhouses in the region. Now the Venlo greenhouse has started to spread, but still around 75% of the greenhouses are still made of double poly plastic. All of Huy's greenhouses are heated with natural gas.
Rijk Zwaan Demo House
A section of 2,200 square meters in the greenhouse of Huy serves as the demo house from Rijk Zwaan. The Dutch seed breeder has several of these locations around the world to showcase their work to local growers. Huy grows
200 varieties of tomatoes, 30-something varieties of peppers, 6 varieties of cucumbers as well as several eggplant crops. All of these varieties are primarily bred for the North American market. Thanks to his connection with Rijk Zwaan, Huy gains much information and experience from fellow growers around the world. This experience is reflected inside his greenhouse; he grows high wire cucumbers year round thanks to supplemental lighting, a very innovative strategy.
In this 'regular' greenhouse, Huy is growing produce that he commercially markets via local marketer . "On 4 hectares I grow high wire mini cucumbers, 2.5 hectares are used for peppers and on the rest of the acreage we have eggplants", he said. "I grow only Rijk Zwaan varieties. It fits the marketers program as well, I’d say 75% of the English cucumbers and 95% of minis are Rijk Zwaan varieties. Same goes for the eggplants; we have Rijk Zwaan's J-Lo, Rihanna, Angela, Beyonce and Lato."
Huy's father John was one of the first growers that started to grow on coir substrate back in the days. "Actually we were the first ones to start hydroponics on rockwool in 1979-‘80", Huy said. "We switched to coconut in the late 80’s. In that time hydroponics were quite new, and we grew on everything from rockwool to phenolic foam, to sponge. In the end we needed something that held water better. Coir seemed much easier for managing the water. That’s why we made the switch.
Huy started to work with Millenniumsoils Coir. "They supplied us our first grow bags and throughout the years there were discussions about what we searched for and how we could improve the slabs. The first few years were trial & error. Due to harsh climates, we had to develop, with Millenniumsoils, mixes that best suited us. Many of those blends developed at that time have become the industry standard today.
Peppers on coir
As Huy was pioneering with the coir slabs, even in bell pepper cultivation, many fellow greenhouse growers became interested. "Nobody ever thought about putting peppers on coconut. That’s mostly because pepper looks totally different on coconut, it changes the physical appearance of the plant. Back then, around 1998, grower groups visited us every once in a while. They all thought that our peppers were the funniest things ever because the leaves were bigger and heavier; the growth was more vegetative and they did not have a typical bell pepper smell at all. After about 5 years everybody was on coconut as they are today."
Huy explained that the coir substrate physically changed the plant. "And for our area, where we have a lot of heat in the summer (it’s really a lot, the plants bear it with difficulties) the pepper develops a hardier system on coconut. It develops more vegetative surface and more resistant roots. This was not the same on the rockwool, which could not help the peppers to endure those brutal summers."
The expertise that Huy gained with the coir substrate made him favour working for Millenniumsoils Coir. He became a distributor for years until he passed the baton to Millenniumsoils Coir' new salesmanager Dave Wilding. " I still have a very close relationships with them, if they need any consultancy with crops, I will always assist."
As Huy is a grower that is aware of many innovations throughout the sector he is also aware of the recent innovations in substrates. "I know that the manufacturers of rockwool substrates have made improvements to their substrates, saying that you can control the crop more precisely. There are also slabs available that make water retention less variable (more air in the bag, easier to control). I agree that at some extent it’s easier to control, the rockwool is not organic so it's more stable. But still, for some crops it does not really matter. I even think you can micromanage a crop too much. This does not necessary translate into a better crop."
Huy is confident that the growers in Leamington will never go back to rockwool in the case of peppers cultivation. "Coir just gives a better plant. Maybe you cannot control it as easily as you could with rockwool. But it’s not even necessary. So basically the overall benefits of coconut is still better than the controllability of rockwool."