Growing media - Ensuring supply

In the face of challenging growing conditions in key countries, what steps have coir suppliers taken to ensure supply? Gavin McEwan finds out.

Coir: supplier countries have faced challenging conditions due to adverse weather - image: Cocogreen
Coir: supplier countries have faced challenging conditions due to adverse weather - image: Cocogreen

The global coir industry has grown vastly in recent years and now supplies growers worldwide. But the industry has suffered this year from the consequences of prolonged bad weather in its two main supplier countries, India and Sri Lanka, where annual rainfall is ordinarily concentrated between September and November.

With a factory in India, Horticultural Coir supplies direct to growers and also as an ingredient in for producers of blended media. "It has been a really challenging year due to the weather. I’m sure other coir suppliers would agree," says managing director Tom de Vesci.

"This was a freak summer of heavy showers and dull overcast days. We didn’t get the long dry hot periods that have been the norm so the coir didn’t get the drying it needed. Then there was a decline in the upstream supply of coco pith as the Chinese stopped buying it for mattress fibre. For the whole market, that has had an effect on prices."

Indeed several manufacturers were reported to have run out of raw material and temporarily stopped supplying coir to growers.

India and Sri Lanka between them currently produce around 90 per cent of the world’s commercial coir. But de Vesci points out: "The raw material is abundant across south India and indeed in other countries that the coir industry has not yet tapped into."

While the industry’s rate of advance in south Asia has been "mind-boggling" over the past 15 years, this could now be replicated elsewhere, he suggests. "Some is already being produced in Africa and Vietnam. I foresee production getting spread around more to reduce seasonality and risk. Global demand is huge and more and more players are coming onto the market — some good, some less so. The barriers to entry are low."

Horticultural Coir has been among the beneficiaries of UK soft-fruit growers’ move away from growing in soil, de Vesci adds. "For protected growing the infrastructure has got harder to move around. As a result coir has become a mainstay, and one reason is its longevity due to its relatively high lignin and cellulose content, meaning it doesn’t degrade as quickly as peat. I’ve seen tomato growers use coir grow bags for seven years or more, though there is some loss of yield."

With coir’s rise has come greater scrutiny of its ethical and sustainability credentials from customers. "It’s not just a peat versus non-peat debate any more — it’s about energy use in production and the supply chain," de Vesci explains. "Supermarkets want their credentials to be impeccable. All responsible players are investing in social responsibility and have signed up to one of the social audit processes, which are very exacting and do have a commercial effect."

The industry’s Responsible Sourcing & Manufacture of Growing Media Project even launched a "social responsibility calculator" earlier this year. "The industry has been very proactive — we don’t want to be bossed by the politicians," he adds. "Suppliers are also becoming more conscious of the need to take care of the environment when it comes to water discharge, for example, which they are increasingly addressing with recycling, desalination and irrigation of tolerant plants."

Robust supply chain

Thomas Ogden, commercial director at coir supplier Cocogreen, says: "We do not foresee having any supply issues or associated price increases this coming season. We have a robust supply chain and the necessary contingency plans in place to deal with protracted monsoon seasons, such as the one experienced last year. We ring-fence a reliable supply of buffered coir to ensure we can satisfy demand in our key markets."

This includes the UK soft-fruit sector, which accounts for 12 per cent of Cocogreen’s overall business. It claims to be the first coir substrate manufacturer to gain quality management, social accountability and environmental credentials with ISO9001:2008 at all its sites, the new Social Accountability standard SA8000 and was the first in the sector to join sustainable farming charity LEAF (Linking Environment & Farming).

"Every UK customer growing edible crops requests proof of our social and environmental credentials for audits for organisations such as LEAF and Red Tractor Assured Food Standards, and for external audits for major retailers," Ogden explains. "It’s such a common request that we supply an audit pack detailing all this data."

Cocogreen has introduced a new wetting and water conservation agent, H2CoCo, to improve water and fertiliser efficiency in coir and save time and labour its deployment. "It makes the rehydration process up to 50 times faster, taking an hour rather then several days, making compressed coir growbags, which are more time-efficient to lay out, an attractive option," says Ogden.

Independent trials of H2CoCo in US salad crops have shown a 25 per cent saving in water and fertiliser use during cropping, while helping to optimise yields, he adds. "It also extends the life and performance of coir substrate by removing water-repellent fertiliser deposits."

Moisture levels improved

Kent-based Mansfields grows around 50ha of strawberries in coir growbags, in which it aims for minimum moisture levels of 50 per cent, evenly distributed. "Typically there are blocks, about 10 per cent of the total crop, where moisture struggles to get past 35 per cent," says irrigation engineer Daniel Epps.

"To overcome this in the past we’ve tried a number of strategies but with little effect. This year we decided to trial Cocogreen’s H2CoCo in the fertigation water feeding these moisture-deficient blocks. We were amazed as the results were almost immediate. By the next day the moisture levels in these growbags had risen from 35-40 per cent to more than 50 per cent."

Impressed by the quick results, staff continued using H2CoCo once a month throughout the season in these blocks. "Monitoring throughout the season showed stable improvements to moisture levels and distribution in the whole coir substrate, while overall irrigation and fertiliser usage was reduced. Although we had no means of quantifying crop yield and quality improvements, logic tells us that improving moisture levels and distribution in these growbags led to production improvements."

Next year, Mansfields plans to use H2CoCo throughout its strawberry crop, including at the beginning of the season to rehydrate the coir. "Using H2CoCo we expect rehydration time to be significantly reduced, saving time and aiding water management, which is our aim at Mansfields," adds Epps.

First decade celebrated

Fellow coir supplier Botanicoir celebrated 10 years in the UK marketplace this July and now ships coir products to 46 countries. On the supply issue, managing director Kalum Balasuriya says: "Our main priority is our growers and we are always completely upfront with them about issues such as these. In response to changing weather patterns we’re investing in a drying facility to ensure that in the future we can be proactive and avoid these issues that the weather brings."

At the British Tomato Conference in September, the company presented its new Botanicoir Dry slab, a mix of husk chips and smaller particles promoting faster drainage. "That means it typically has five per cent less water content, which promotes generative growth from the beginning and makes growth more steerable," Balasuriya explains.

"In Japan we have done well – they have completely switched there from rock wool to coir. They appreciate that it’s not just easy to use but also fully degradable, which makes it easy to dispose of."

Suppliers benefit as strawberry growers switch to tabletop structures

Pro-Tech Marketing of Shropshire is among the suppliers benefiting from the move in strawberry growing from planting in beds to using raised tabletop structures.

When it comes to the particulars of the system though, "it all depends on the grower and the variety", says sales manager Charles Tager. "We incorporate the grower’s experience and then build a custom fit rather than sell them something off-the-shelf, and even manufacture our own brackets to suit."

One drawback to such systems is they come later into crop. "Growers will often have a lower system for earliness, though there are potential pest and drainage issues," Tager points out. "If they want a later crop they will use tabletops, which have a lower picking cost.

"They will typically be around 10 days later, depending on the crop profile. They may have both for continuity, including continuity of labour. Modern everbearer varieties from breeders like Driscoll’s give good yields for a long season now anyway.

"We have also put in these systems in Canada and in Poland, where we are very successful. There are EU grants available for growers to move out of growing in soil though the PO [producer organisation] scheme. They see a yield increase growing in substrate, when they become familiar with it."

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