A record soft-fruit season this year has given growers confidence to invest in production. With controllable, picker-friendly growing formats now becoming the norm, this presents opportunities for suppliers of growing media, in particular coir, which is becoming an established part of UK production horticulture.
"Our experience is that the demand for coir continues to increase," says Horticultural Coir managing director Tom de Vesci. "We have seen an increase in business every year of the past 10 years. There is an increasing gulf between the serious well-established coir companies that have experience and have invested in research and trials over the years so as to be in a position to offer the best quality products, versus the small coir suppliers that offer a variable product, often a bit cheaper but usually unreliable. Our feeling is that this is being appreciated by growers more now."
While peat remains established in some areas of horticultural production, next year will see policy commitments to its reduction taking effect, with no public procurement of peat-based products.
Earlier this month, a set of draft guidance notes published by the UK industry's Sustainable Growing Media Task Force proposed a scoring system against criteria in seven headings including environmental and social, with participating suppliers expected to pass a threshold score, yet to be determined. The scoring would give peat a value ranging from zero to 16 depending on the site from which it was extracted. But coir could also score as low as zero if it is produced in a "water-stressed" area.
This is a subject on which suppliers that have gone through a certification process can stand out, according to Cocogreen sales and marketing director Thomas Ogden. "It's our environmental, social and quality assurance that sets us apart - these ensure that you can deliver on your rhetoric," he says, adding that this can have practical consequences, too.
"If you are going to undertake a £1m contract you need to be running a tight ship and to have control over the whole process, rather than pitching for business and then relying on third parties to fulfil it. Some companies have messed up because they can't deliver on their promises."
As well as having ISO 9001 quality management compliance, Cocogreen has also achieved the SA8000 social standard across its production and earlier this year became to first growing-media supplier to join sustainability advisory body LEAF (Linking Environment & Farming).
"We are fully accountable. Coir may be a renewable product but without SA8000 we can't show we're not disadvantaging people in its production," says Ogden.
"What's less appreciated is that it's also an industry that demands high-end skills," he adds. "We have staff with PhDs and take a scientific approach to product development. Each year there are significant steps forward. Rather than a commoditised product we want to supply one that adds value for the customer."
Thanks also to expansion in the retail market, where it supplies what is often big retailers' own-brand products, he says: "The market is significantly rising, partly as it's offsetting peat. Cocogreen is already bigger than some peat companies, though we are some way off the larger ones."
Unusually for a UK-based supplier, it is also making inroads into continental and even Far Eastern markets via a network of distributors. The current buoyant market highlights the need for a dependable yet affordable product, adds Ogden. "As more and more growers target earlyand late-season production, the premium for fruit during these periods has diminished. As a result many growers are becoming more focused on optimising fruit quality and yield while streamlining input costs."
It is also attracting newcomers. CoirGrow was only two months old when it exhibited at the National Fruit Show. Representative Hemantha Fernando says: "We have been supplying to the UK and are now doing so directly. In Sri Lanka, what we lack is technology. Here there is already a hi-tech substrate market. We want to work with research centres here to find the best hydroponic systems."
CoirGrow is already in discussion with UK agronomy firms, a route that brought large continental supplier Dutch Plantin to the UK market in a deal to supply Agrii's clients from the end of last year. "We can be cost-effective because there's no middle-man," Fernando explains. "Hydroponic growing will become a bigger and bigger market worldwide - normal growing will not be enough to feed everyone - so we want to get into the market now."
Vegetable production: growing media remains a 'hot potato in organic industry'
The growing-media issue has meant vegetable transplant production "has been a hot potato in the organic industry for many years", Dr Margi Lennartsson of Coventry University and Garden Organic Research told September's Rijk Zwaan/Soil Association Organic Open Day.
"Organic growers are still reliant on peat-based media as that's the only thing that's thought to work, but I want them to be at the forefront of these changes," she said. "We are missing an opportunity."
But having worked with the industry's Growing Media Initiative on performance standards "to make sure new materials are responsibly sourced and fit for purpose", she said each growing medium must be understood on its own merits.
"You can make your own substrate from composted green waste. It will still be biologically active, with nutrient levels similar to farmyard manure, though less available and tends to be slightly alkaline, which is difficult to correct. It's also quite dense compared to peat and lacks peat's structure so will slump. It also has high electrical conductivity, which if too high will prevent the plant taking up water."
A more lignified structure can be achieved by adding woodchip, or even bracken or wool shoddy, in common with commercial green waste mixes, she said. Another homemade option is leaf mould, which is not yet commercially available and "is at its best at two years old".
Meanwhile, coir "is the leading peat replacement and the one most like peat", while in the USA, which uses very little peat, there is a reliance on bark-based products instead, said Lennartsson. "As with leaf mould there are differences depending on the tree species."
Wood fibre is "new and up-and-coming" but because it uses a high-energy process to "fluff up" the material "it has sustainability pros and cons and is not yet organic-approved because it is mixed with artificial nutrients", she pointed out.
While bio-char "is not suitable on its own as a substrate because it has few nutrients", it has a buffering capacity and supports biological activity. It can also be supplemented with plant-derived additives. Although anaerobic digestate "is not here today" as a growing medium, "it will be in future", added Lennartsson.
Unfortunately, "nothing much has been done successfully" on replacements for blocking composts, she said. "Blocking was developed with peat in mind."