Kassen in de VS: huidige staat en mogelijkheden
As in the Netherlands, growers in the US have become more interested in sustainable greenhouse production. US farmers face problems such as high energy prices, high labor costs and the importance of reducing pesticide use.
High energy prices, high labor costs and the importance of reducing pesticide use were also important motives for innovation in the Dutch greenhouse sector. In addition, the US most important greenhouse production areas, especially California, face water shortages, a problem which is expected to increase in the future. Another important consideration is the American consumer, who has become more focussed on local and sustainable production.
The total greenhouse area in the United States is 9100 hectare according to the latest Census of Agriculture of the US Department of Agriculture. Most of this (8.000 hectare) is used for ornamental production. The remaining 700 hectare is used for greenhouse vegetable production. The bulk of the area of floriculture is used for the production of annual bedding plants (29%), followed by nursery stock (20%), flowering potted plants (14%), perennial herbaceous pot plants (10%), leaf plants (hanging ) pots (7%), cut flowers (6%) and "other crops" (14%). The largest part of the greenhouse vegetable production is used for the production of tomatoes (56%), followed at some distance by cucumbers (9%), fresh herbs (8%), lettuce (4%), pepper (2%) strawberries (1%) and "other" (20%). This sector increased in recent years and has seen a growth of almost 150% (not inflation-adjusted) since 1998.
The US greenhouse sector is highly differentiated, both in terms of size of firms, the technologies employed and production regions. There are many small companies and few large greenhouse companies. Generally, large companies are located on the West Coast and the southern part of the United States, while the east coast consists of strong seasonal firms. Besides size and region there are also significant differences between the greenhouse nursery sector and the greenhouse vegetable sector. Greenhouse vegetable companies have larger facilities and produce only one or two products. These companies are generally more sophisticated and are well informed of new developments within this sector. As in the Netherlands, much of this production is on substrate. Especially the US vegetable growers benefit from the more conscientious consumer who likes to buy locally produced vegetables year round. Greenhouse production makes this possible.
The production of bedding plants in the greenhouse generally takes place in smaller companies in the US. Sale and distribution of ornamental plants in the Netherlands is concentrated in the Westland. Due to large distances such concentrations of distribution points don’t appear in the US. To meet the needs of their customers American plant breeders have a wide range available. This differentiated product range causes higher costs and lower levels of automation. It is remarkable that, despite the economic downturn, the sector in recent years has remained fairly stable. Fewer Americans went on vacation, but spent more money on gardening. Within the horticultural sector, the production of cut flowers is decreasing. This is mainly the consequence of increased competition from Colombia and Ecuador. With the rising popularity of greenhouse vegetables there is currently interest from flower producers to switch to growing vegetables in their facilities.
Due to the lack of central distribution centres in the United States, US growers are well aware of the importance of a good marketing strategy to sell their products on the (local) market. Many small businesses therefore have professional web sites and participate in (local) fairs to promote their product. The expectation is that small local businesses with a niche and large businesses that can compete on cost will remain in the sector.
Many large US vegetable growers focus on sustainability. In marketing their products towards the consumer, the sustainability aspect is clearly highlighted. These growers will point out that their products are produced locally, that sustainable energy sources were used, such as geothermal or solar energy (if applicable of course) and rainwater is collected and reused to prevent runoff. It is also stressed that using a closed system prevents pests and diseases. Moreover, the combined heat and power technology in the US has not really taken off1. This is partly because electricity prices and subsidies in many regions are too low for profitable purposes. Additionally, return of electricity to the grid is difficult because most regions of the US have several suppliers for gas and electricity. GE Energy recently sold the first combined heat and power installation to Houwelings Nurseries in California.
But not only the US vegetable sector is interested in sustainability. In the plant sector, a trend is emerging for sustainably-produced plants. Growers try to market their sustainable effort and invest in visible solutions like biodegradable pots and reuse of pots. American research has shown that consumers are willing to pay more for these products. In addition, 25% of the growers in the US is interested in sustainability certification. One of the organisations which have an active role is the Dutch MPS certification organization. The attention to reduce the use of energy is less than a few years ago with peak prices. There has been invested in heat curtains for greenhouses and small improvements in energy-efficiency.
A trend is clear in the US towards more sustainable local produced food. In addition, the bedding plant growers are optimistic about the future. Estimates suggest that between 30 and 50% of the existing greenhouse companies are interested in a new greenhouse or renovate the current facility. This may offer great opportunities for Dutch greenhouse manufacturers and supply industries. It is important to inform US growers that Dutch greenhouses and greenhouse systems can not only be used in large facilities with monocultures, but can also be adjusted to fit the needs of smaller projects, where many different varieties are grown. Growers in the US are looking for reliable systems that are easy to maintain. There is also a market for American growers for simple systems that can measure the productivity per employee. Such systems must cope with the large number of plant species within a company. This system can help growers to reward the employees for the amount of work. The general expectation is that it will be difficult to have cheap labor due to tightening of immigration policy in the United States.
Acces to Dutch knowledge centers
Also, the study revealed that American greenhouse operations may be interested in access to Dutch greenhouse horticultural knowledge centers. While larger American greenhouse growers seem to have relatively easy access to knowledge and research from the Netherlands, smaller growers have to rely much more on "extension services" of local universities. These services were always freely available to growers, and were funded by grants from the federal government. Because of cut in federal funding for these programs, the availability and quality of the service in many regions are lower than desired. Growers are therefore interested in other sources of information. Many growers will have to rely on information made available by their suppliers, which might not always be objective. It is expected that interest in Dutch independent knowledge will increase. There will also be opportunities for Dutch research institutes to collaborate in international horticultural research. In addition, US growers are interested in joint promotion of the greenhouse sector. The Dutch knowledge gained with "Kom in de Kas" can be implemented when many US growers work together. Besides the developments in knowledge and technology the study has shown that vegetable growing in greenhouses can expand if it focuses more on the restaurant sector. This industry, which includes with McDonald's and other fast food chains, is mainly using tomatoes from field production because they contain less moisture than greenhouse tomatoes. Perhaps the development of a greenhouse tomato that contains less moisture will help the greenhouse sector in its competition with field production.