Botanicoir plans Indian expansion to keep up with global substrate demand

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Botanicoir plans Indian expansion to keep up with global substrate demand

It provides greater ease for picking and the opportunity to produce fruit in regions with depleted or inadequate soils, but what lies behind the current boom in substrate farming that has taken the berry and vegetable industries by storm? At Fruit Logistica earlier this month, Fresh Fruit Portal caught up with representatives from Botanicoir, a U.K.-headquartered group that makes the coconut-based fiber coir in Sri Lanka and is finding new export opportunities from California to Germany to Kenya. 

Amidst a groundswell of opposition to the harvesting of peat moss - a traditional source of soil mix extracted from some of the world's best carbon sinks - coconuts from the tropics have become an unlikely input for modern farming in the temperate north.

And from berry operations in the U.K. the trend has spread, now reaching as far as Tasmania and California. 

As a family business that started in 2005, Botanicoir has a coir processing facility in Sri Lanka which sources coconut husks from external farmers and its own 100 hectares of productive fields. 

Botanicoir managing director Kalum Balasuriya

A year ago the group stepped up a notch with the operation by installing a drying machine it had custom made in Germany.

"In the past we used to rely on sunlight. We had large concrete drying yards to dry our coir using the natural sunlight but it became very challenging over the last three or four years," managing director Kalum Balasuriya tells Fresh Fruit Portal.

"The monsoon season has changed. It started to rain quite unexpectedly, sometimes day and night, and so it was very challenging for us to dry our coir. 

"The coir has to be dried below 20% moisture in order to compress it, because it comes in a compressed form so we can load more units per container, saving money on transportation and space."

It's a model that has yielded positive results for Botanicoir, so much so that the company intends to open up a new coir processing facility in southern India in mid-2018.

With growth expected, we ask Balasuriya where he sees new opportunities.

"We're seeing them from California and the West Coast of the United States, and some parts of the East Coast in Florida, and Germany because at the moment a lot of Germany’s strawberries are grown in the ground," he says. 

"But they are facing the same problems we were facing many years ago in the U.K. with the rising picking cost and fumigation issues, so they are moving into substrate."

Botanicoir also has a relatively new distribution arrangement in Australia and New Zealand, and is also seeing growth in South Africa, Kenya, the Middle East and North Africa.

"A lot of growing is done in Kenya but most of it is in the ground. Now they are finding the same challenges and moving into substrate - that's for veggies and fruit, and some flowers as well," he says.

The executive clarifies that around 40% of the business worldwide is with vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and sometimes aubergines/eggplant, with the remaining 60% for berries.

How is the coir produced and used?

As Botanicoir sales representative Wim van Wingerden explains, these two broad categories of crops each require very different kinds of substrate. 

"You grind it, then you wash it and then you make different mixes - you don't use one mix for strawberries and the same mix for tomatoes," he says.

"For the berries you have all fine particles - you don't see anything big, and then on the other side you see the differences with bigger chips.

"A berry mix needs to have the products washed – only in strawberries and soft fruit it needs to be buffered."

He says buffering refers to washing the processed husk in calcium nitrate so it is cleaned of sodium and chloride, while Balasuriya adds the process also removes potassium, boron and silicon.

"Where the coconuts grow is a very salty environment, and that’s sodium and chloride. You have to get rid of it," says van Wingerden.

He says tomato growers tend to wash the substrate in their own greenhouses.

"But strawberries and raspberries are very sensitive so every product we deliver is washed and buffered. We transport it as a dry product and then people are rehydrating it and they get the volume they want," he says.

Balasuriya claims that while a transition to substrate is beneficial in the long-term, it can be costly and challenging at the start.

"When you're growing in substrate the irrigation and fertigation systems have to be completely different, so we work with a number of independent consultants to make that transition viable and less troublesome," he says.

"We design the feeding recipe according to the varieties they grow. Of course when it comes to that we have to analyze their water and so forth, so we work with labs like NRM and Eurofins in Holland."

Tougher regulations in the pipeline for peat

During the fair we also caught up with Audrone Petrauskiene of Lithuanian peat and peat substrate company Suli Flor, who discussed a rising tide of change in her industry.

"We are producing peat substrates as a raw material in the Baltic states. In Europe coco-peat is coming from Asia – from Sri Lanka, from India - but it's still not very popular in our countries to add to substrate," she says. 

Suli Flor sales manager Audrone Petrauskiene

However, she says it is coming on "little by little". Brussels is looking to reduce the use of peat within the European Union in a bid to protect natural ecosystems and prevent the greenhouse gas emissions that come with harvesting the product.

"We are also looking at the possibility in the future of adding some coco-peat, because as you know the peat limits in Europe are going to be reduced and in some countries a lot of substrates should be free of peat," Petrauskiene says.

"That’s why peat producers are going through this stage where we add more bark, coco-peat or wood fiber substrates in order to reduce the peat which is an ecological problem. I think in the coming years that's something we'll get to."

Balasuriya claims peat also has some problematic aspects from a farming point of view.

"It's what was available and the coir was not produced in such a way before. Then again, the peat had limitations, especially as the product was not draining properly, clogging a lot of water.

"It was too wet, especially for everbearing crops. So the growers needed something so they could easily use to manage the crop in such a way that they could drain it quite easily, and when the substrate is drained and dry enough they need to be able to irrigate it.

"The peat has a lot of good properties for absorbing the water, but not so much for draining it, especially with crops growing in a controlled environment."






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