LED: Europe revokes, North America explodes
After months of uncertainty, Western European growers are finally moving forward with their decision to install LED lighting, according to Koen Vangrop of Mechatronix. "Due to the uncertainty in the energy market and subsidies, the commercial season started late," he said. "However, we are now seeing many growers opting for the installation of LED lamps, both in vegetables and flowers. In contrast, the North American market is booming like never before. They are choosing optimal flexibility in terms of spectrum and intensity, allowing them to easily convert their greenhouses for different crops."
"In December and January, the market was really unclear, and there were even questions about the future of lighted cultivation," said Koen, whose company, Mechatronix, has quickly become a major player in the horticultural lighting market. "This was mainly due to the gas and energy prices, which resulted in a relatively late start to the commercial season. External factors in the Netherlands, such as the absence of EHG subsidies, have also contributed to the uncertainty. The GMO regulations have also been ambiguous regarding the permitted light levels, although the GMO area has significantly decreased. Despite these uncertainties, there is still a lot of interest in LED lighting, and we expect to install over 200 hectares of lighting."
This includes both vegetable and ornamental plant greenhouses, Koen explained. "In flowers, we are not only seeing more chrysanthemums and roses being grown under LED lighting but also new varieties such as lilies. This is due to the maturity of the research: year after year, it has been proven that crops can be grown under LED lighting, leading to the introduction of many new crops."
The choice of switchable far-red lighting is common in these installations, allowing for dynamic manipulation of plant morphology. "The effects of far-red lighting depend on the plant, but it can be used to control plant shape in both shade-loving and sun-loving crops, often with the aim of promoting elongation or reducing stretching. By providing far-red light at the end of the day, some crops tend to stretch more, although, in anthuriums, it has been observed to counteract plant elongation."
The chrysanthemum growers of CJ Orchids chose full LED, dimmable, and separately controllable far-red.
Flexibility in lighting systems is also increasing in vegetable cultivation. "Switchable far-red lighting is the most popular option. In tomatoes, there have been both positive and negative experiences with far-red light, but its effect is evident, and growers want to be prepared. We also see some growers choosing to be able to switch off green light as it is energy-inefficient."
The vegetable projects mainly involve existing companies being equipped with lighting or transitioning from SON-T or even hybrid systems to full LED. "The energy crisis has led to a shift in the market: relocation of gardens, temporary closure of businesses, but also an openness to exploring LED lighting as a means of saving energy. The gas price remains an uncertain factor; it is currently low, but the market outlook is volatile. As a result, there is little investment in hybrid systems. The number of kilowatts they want to invest in cultivation is too high, making the choice lean towards full LED. Unlike last year, where many tomato and cucumber companies were cautious, they are now moving forward."
Lighted strawberry cultivation is also undergoing significant changes, with an increasing focus on everbearers. "However, in practice, June-bearing varieties still dominate the light cultivation area. This is different in the North American market, where everbearing strawberries like Albion are already extensively grown under lighting. Their market model does not allow for two major flushes followed by the end of the season."
A fixture with only far-red enabled
The North American market is accelerating its investments both in new constructions and existing facilities. "Energy costs are less important in the North American market, although they have also increased. However, that is not the breaking point," noted Koen. "Their primary focus is on product quality and quantity. Tomato greenhouses are being converted for year-round cultivation, as well as cucumbers, mini-cucumbers, and flowers."
According to Koen, the American market is benefiting from the matured knowledge gained from lighting research in Europe. "Although they adopt LED technology later, they implement it on a broader scale and skip several steps that Europe has taken over the past 6 to 7 years. Essentially, they are leveraging the lighting research conducted in Europe. For instance, they are immediately adopting fully dynamic LED solutions where the entire spectrum, not just far-red, is adjustable. They prioritize maximum flexibility for future crop changes. Large-scale growers want their facilities to be set up for cucumbers now but anticipate transitioning to cherry tomatoes, mini-cucumbers, or even strawberries in the near future."
Risk diversification is the underlying motivation, even more so than in Europe. "This is driven by virus pressure in tomatoes and the desire to seize market opportunities. Although strawberries are currently in high demand, will it continue? Where tomato prices may decline, cucumbers are fetching reasonable prices. However, this can change in two years, requiring a reevaluation of cultivation areas. By focusing on maximum flexibility, they are building in a level of certainty for the future."
Will this trend also occur in Europe? In recent years, some tomato growers have switched to cucumber production. "As a result, there has been a growing demand for specific far-red lamps or other lighting solutions as growers encounter limitations with their current installations." Therefore, Koen expects to see more European growers opting for flexible solutions. "Companies are gradually becoming too large to bear all the risks. If external factors such as an energy crisis prevent growers from providing lighting during the winter, the consequences are significant. The same applies to a virus outbreak in tomatoes that may result in export restrictions or a collapsing market. It is expected that European growers will start incorporating measures to ensure stability."
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