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Geoponica's headgrower Richard Billekens on Mexican challenges:

Mexico: "If you're not disciplined you will not achieve anything!"

Most of the Mexican growers at the Agropark in Queretaro are currently preparing their greenhouse operations to welcome a new batch of young plants. Also the 10 hectares at bell pepper grower Geoponica are completely clean, disinfected and welcomed the new crop to start the second cultivation. Looking back on last year, general crop manager Richard Billekens hope's to improve this year's results. According to Richard,  it always takes two years before a brand new greenhouse in Mexico reaches it's full potential.

Geoponica is a modern, state of the art greenhouse grower that currently has an acreage of 10 hectare, divided over two separate greenhouses of 5 hectare each. The greenhouses are air-inflated double poly structures, built turn-key by Richel in 2012-2013. The company is fully equipped with high-grade horticulture technology, a gutter system, advanced heating boilers with 5,000 m3 buffer tank capacity, a CO2 System for the boilers and a 30 Million litre capacity basin. Geoponica already has plans to expand their businesses with more greenhouses in the future; the site is ready to house another 13 Ha ( and even up to 50 Ha) and even more advanced greenhouses are in the pipeline.

The immense corridor between the sections

"But all of this doesn't guarantee a perfect crop or the best result", Richard Billekens knows from the experience he gained during many start ups of similar projects. Geoponica is one of many projects that he worked on. After an extensive career in the  Dutch and North American greenhouse industry, he started working on start ups of several greenhouses at the Agropark in Queretaro, Mexico. After successfully raising and running the pepper greenhouses of Freshmex over the past few years, he decided to opt for a new challenge and was hired by the Mexican Guindi-family to start up their greenhouse branch Geoponica.

Richard Billekens shares his knowledge with a fellow grower who visits his greenhouse.

Billekens was hired to start up the greenhouse, transfer his knowledge on irrigation, cultivation strategies and management and to interview and train the applicants for the management functions. Looking back on the first year, he said that it was quite a challenge. "I know from my experience that starting up a project like this doesn't go by itself. You can have all the right equipment and supplies, but you simply do not have the same working mentality over here, hence you will have to take a lot of extra work in to account and extra and unnecessary trouble shooting is often involved."

As an example Billekens cites the problems they have had with the heating system in the first year. "During the construction, the heating pipes weren't covered before welding, and a lot of dirt entered the system. This resulted in sand in the water circulation, and we couldn't achieve the temperatures we needed in the greenhouses, aside from the problems we had with cleaning the system to prevent additional damage to the heating pumps and boilers.

The crop in November 2013. Due to start up problems of the packaging line, Billekens had to wait too long before he could start picking.

Other start up problems were the result of problems with the irrigation water. The quality of the water at the Agropark is questionable and also needed extra attention. "Good water quality is crucial to your crop, hence we spend a lot of time, research and money to find the right water treatments. We opted for a Odis ion exchanger system because we had a really high sodium and bicarbonate content in the water, which brought the quality of our peppers down. This ODIS system is a water purifier that is able to deliver and make perfect water from practically any source."

Geoponica's packing hall

The problems with the water and heating system required many research and time from Billekens. "Drippers started plugging up due to a neutraliser that was not working correctly. Flower abortion and too big (weak) flowers because the heating system was still not working to activate the plants in the morning. Mildew showing up. The uneven irrigation due to the plugged drippers resulted in very wet slabs or very dry slabs; plants dying off. All together it was not a very productive year, but this is what I expected due to the experience that I have at other projects."

Boiler room

"Even if you have all the systems running and have the best technique available, you still aren't there", Billekens said. He refrains to the quality of the labour in the greenhouse. "Working with Mexican employees requires a different mindset. The labour costs are maybe not a large expense, but just as with any employee, motivation is crucial, otherwise you will still spent too much money on labour.

Priva terminal to register labour and crop performance.

"We work with Priva Assist labour registration to monitor the performance of our workers. Next to this we spend a lot of energy in improving the quality of the labour; speed does matter, but you need to make sure that the crop is perfect, and doesn't get harmed by workers who are only aiming at working really fast. First they have to develop quality, and then improve the speed of their work.

The youngplants during propagation at El Oasis

Now that the new greenhouse is clean and ready for the new crop, Billekens is preparing the forces for the second season. Workers are being trained to spot pests and diseases and he is making sure that all technical installations are ready and set.

The new bell pepper young plants are currently being propagated at local propagator El Oasis. Billekens is working with this grower as long as he has been in Mexico and is very satisfied about his work. They have sowed 2.5 Ha of orange peppers (Orangey by Rijk Zwaan), 2.5 Ha yellow peppers (Baselga by Rijk Zwaan) and 5 Ha of red peppers (Triple 5 by Enza Zaden). Next to this there are also some trials with new introductions, as Billekens is always interested in new varieties.

Transplanted youngplants in Riococo 300 slabs.

"The three varieties that we have sowed are varieties that I have been using for a few years now, I am very confident about them and have had very good experiences with these. But you should always keep your eyes open. The same is the case with the propagation media; I regularly compare current products with new suppliers. Right now we are using a Jiffy 7 plug to propagate the young plants. This works very well, especially with the coir growing media we use. We are able to create a very strong young plant.

"We sowed the plants on June 16th -17th and started planting them in the greenhouse on July 15 (4-5 week old plant). We'll transplant them into Riococo growing slabs on our entire acreage. The young plants will be planted inside ( Not very deep in the bottom of) the Riococo slabs and keep the top be dry, in order to prevent Pythium. We are very happy about the Riococo slabs. There are many companies in the world who can supply you coco, but there are only a few out there who can bring you a product that is that consistent in itís quality and still uniform. Even if the slab is dry or wet, what matters is the fact that all slabs are the same. The consistency of the slabs is the only thing that matters to me, because this gives you the ability to steer the entire crop perfectly. And I can adjust my irrigation strategy accordingly.Ē

Despite the fact that Billekens is a man with many experience, he is still looking forward to the new season. To him, growing will never become a routine. Each project is a new challenge that he embraces with a lot of passion. Also this year he is trying to transfer the that passion and enthusiasm to the local staff.

"Hopefully we can achieve our goals en achieve a very good quality crop. It will all be in the hands of our staff; discipline is the only thing that matters. 90 percent of the end results will depend on discipline; you can build a perfect high-tech greenhouse; but if you're not disciplined you will not achieve anything!"

For more information:

Ricard Billekens (e-mail)

Shan Halamba

Richel Greenhouses

Benjamin Richel

Publication date: 7/21/2014
Author: Boy de Nijs



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