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Timo Raus dives into the origins of greenhouse horticulture

“The future history of food farming” in a backyard

Recently, Timo Raus, with Dutch Greenhouses, moved within the Westland Region, not only providing more space for Timo, his wife, and their dog, but also introducing them to a place steeped in history, complete with a traditional Westland-style fruit/grape wall dating back to around 1875. Timo and his wife have taken it upon themselves to ensure the preservation of this historical piece by incorporating it into a restoration project, and building a new hobby greenhouse - something that brings them back to the origins of greenhouse horticulture.

Timo's backyard in 1966. Left: the ivy-overgrown fruit/grape-wall. Right a grape greenhouse

"We recently got handed down pictures of the property dating back to 1926 passed down by previous owners. As a history lover and greenhouse fanatic, I simply couldn't help but dust off my books and maps about the region and share a thing or two about how our greenhouse industry developed into the international frontrunner of high-tech horticulture it is today by two different paths. This is all based on pictures from my own backyard", he shares.

The Westland region in the Netherlands, where Timo Raus was born, partially raised, and currently resides, has a rich history defined by its pioneering spirit in food farming. Over the centuries, the region transformed into a powerhouse in food farming, driven by continuous innovation, hard work, and adaptability to meet agricultural needs.

In the 19th century, there was a transition from livestock farming to horticulture, with traditional farms giving way to horticultural farms and orchards. This shift was motivated by the rising demand for fruits and vegetables in nearby cities like The Hague and Delft. To shield fruit trees and grapevines from strong sea winds, tall fruit/grape walls, typically 2 to 2.5 meters in height and constructed of brick, were erected. These walls not only offered protection but also retained solar heat, advancing crop ripening and allowing growers to bring their produce to market earlier at higher prices. By 1878, the Westland region had nearly 180 kilometers of these walls, especially concentrated in towns like Naaldwijk and Poeldijk, with the latter still featuring a grapevine in its emblem. Today, only about 400 meters of these walls remain in the Westland region.

The grape wall after restoration, ready for crops next season

"During the restoration, I came to the discovery that the backbones and foundations of these walls were traditionally filled with ruble. My wall was filled with pieces of old bricks, broken porcelain, and broken glass. Both from bottles and flat-glass, most likely from 'shooting windows'", Timo shares.

In the late 19th century, as Dutch growers sought ways to improve yields and profits, the first glass structures emerged. These early versions, known as 'shooting windows,' involved placing glass windows against the fruit walls. However, these structures were labor-intensive, expensive, and lacked proper ventilation. By around 1850, the first fixed glass structures, called wall-greenhouses, began to emerge, covering over 22 kilometers of the 180 kilometers of grape/fruit walls by 1878. Wall greenhouses are now a rare sight in the Westland.

IJsselstijn, M., & Van Mil, Y. (2016).

The next significant innovation in greenhouse technology was the development of glass 'houses' or (grape) greenhouses (1G) entirely made of glass, eliminating the need for walls. Inspired by Belgian designs, the first of these was built in Poeldijk in 1888. By 1912, there were approximately 60 hectares of these new 'grape-greenhouses,' and by 1939, they covered nearly 645 hectares, making Westland the 'City of Glass.' The industry flourished, even exporting grapes, a remarkable feat considering that perishable fruits and vegetables were rarely exported during the early 20th century.

"In my books about wine and viticulture, I constantly stumble upon the influence of Phylloxera and the further development of varieties. In my research for this article, only after a very septic search, I found only one coincidental mention in 'The Grape Sickness, Uncinula necator in the middle of the 19th century' by A.J. Vijverberg in 2005, where it describes the destruction of all grape-crops in the Westland region in both 1852 & 1853. Besides that, there is not a single mention. I can only guess that is because grapes back then weren't cultivated as monoculture", Timo adds.

The market for Dutch-grown tables-grapes, however, came to an end during the Second World War. After that, it never got picked up again, as the Dutch cultivation became outcompeted by Southern European countries. Strongly influenced by the innovations and developments in transportation means during the war.

Flat-glass: The ancestor to Dutch greenhouses
Parallel to the innovations for the cultivation of grapes was the introduction of single-paned frames around the 1880s. These were primarily used for vegetable cultivation, such as melons and beans. By the early 20th century, greenhouses made of these frames, known as 'warehouses,' covered 420 hectares by 1939.

IJsselstijn, M., & Van Mil, Y. (2016)

The early 20th century marked a renewed flourishing period for Westland, establishing it as a prime horticultural hub compared to other Dutch regions. By 1904, with its 134 hectares of flat-glass, Westland, along with nearby Delft and Rotterdam, stood head and shoulders above regions like North Holland, which had only 26 hectares. Just over two decades later, Westland's under-glass vegetable and fruit cultivation accounted for approximately 75% of the entire Dutch glass surface area.

1960: Flat-glass structures with left the still present chestnut tree

As depicted best in the illustrations above, it is the flat-glass that ended up becoming the greenhouses as we know them today. The continuous challenge to have produce on the market required heating systems, better irrigation systems, and on and on. To accommodate this, more space was needed, and the double-flat-glass beds were raised. This eventually led to greenhouses people could walk in. Up until the early seventies, greenhouse construction companies were carpenters, and the heating system providers were blacksmiths. In the late sixties and early seventies, first climate computers were introduced in the late sixties & seventies by renowned companies we still know and work with today: Ridder, Priva & Hoogendoorn. Many companies supplying the under-glass cultivation also stood the test of time, such as Royal Brinkman, who started by selling rope to bundle asparagus back in 1885!

"There were several factors that played into Westland's rise as the number one horticultural region of The Netherlands. Its proximity to urban markets such as Delft and The Hague, in combination with excellent waterway connections to further cities, proved very beneficial. The moderate coastal climate, characterized by mild winters and cool sunny summers, gave Westland farmers a competitive edge, allowing them to bring their fresh produce to the market slightly earlier than their inland counterparts", Timo summarizes.

1960: Flat-glass and the wooden grape greenhouse on the right.

"Beyond these geographical and climatic conditions, in my opinion, the very essence of Westland's success lay in the character of its people. A thesis dating back to 1933 written by A.A.A. Verbraeck described the Westlanders as having an unparalleled work ethic, entrepreneurial spirit, and a keen desire for financial success. Their readiness to modify their environment for horticulture, be it adapting the landscape or the soil quality, is a great example."

Turning the odds in your favor
However, not all of Westland had naturally suitable soil for horticulture. "While areas like 's-Gravenzande, Monster, and Naaldwijk had favorable sandy soils for horticulture, others required significant modification. Large-scale sanding projects were initiated, with up to five million cubic meters of sand being transported to improve the land before 1950. To bring this into scale, the size of the island of Manhattan dug out or filled up by 60m."

"In their pursuit of fertile land and profitable cultivation, the Westland's growers resorted to organic fertilizers, using silt from ditches, pig manure, and even human waste from surrounding cities. This adaptability, while not completely unique to the Westland, demonstrates their relentless drive to create the best conditions for farming."

According to Timo, the journey of Westland from a traditional agricultural region to a horticultural powerhouse is a true testament to three core principles: Continuous Innovation (From fruit walls to sophisticated glass greenhouses, due and despite the market conditions the kept innovating; Westland has always been at the forefront of agricultural innovation), a Hardworking Mentality: (The determination and work ethic of the Westlanders have been key in the region's success) and the adapting to changing conditions. "Whether it was modifying the soil or changing farming techniques, the Westlanders never shied away from altering their environment to meet their horticultural needs."

Consult the past to foresee the future
"It was the first climate computer in the seventies that allowed greenhouses to become higher, and I'm certain it is again climate computers that will propel our industry forward in the mid and late twenties," Timo concludes. "Not this time by eliminating a manual opening of a ventilation window, but by eliminating a portion of complex day-to-day tasks of both growers and workers through branches of AI such as machine learning and robotics. This will empower growers to focus on their niche produce market demand and give them time for the intangible parts of their added value."

Today, the greenhouse industry in the Westland stands under political and economic pressure, regardless of its global position as a frontrunner in horticultural excellence. "If we as a region and as a greenhouse industry stay close to the principles that brought us where we are today, I'm certain that the challenges will be overcome, leading to new innovations in horticulture. Fortunately, the principles of innovation, hard work, and adaptability still run through the veins of most men & women in the Dutch greenhouse industry to create the Future of Food Farming together."

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