In the greenhouse industry, buzzwords like sustainability, efficiency and organic have long been a part of the collective vernacular. And you can bet that trend will continue in 2015. Not only do these words pop up on packages and appear in the pages of industry reports, they’re part of the conversation about how innovative growers can produce healthier crops, faster.
The good news is that companies specializing in fertilizer formulations and equipment are putting their money (and research) where their mouths are. With an ear to their customers, these manufacturers are working on products that help growers save fertilizer, water and time.
What’s Trending With Fertilizers?
The number of available fertilizer brands and formulations have increased drastically in recent years. At its base, however, fertilizer remains a ratio of the same three chemicals: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). The main difference between today’s formulas and those of yesteryear lies in how much of each chemical is required to produce the best results with the least amount of waste. This means you won’t find a whole lot of 20-20-20 NPK formulations on the market. In fact, what many fertilizer companies and growers have found is that products with lower phosphorus levels are the way to go.
“A greenhouse grower is always looking at ways to become more efficient, whether that means using less water and fertilizer or using formulas that maximize their water type,” says JR Peters’ Vice President Dr. Cari Peters. “It’s another level of efficiency to pick the right fertilizer, so they don’t waste it or add nutrients they don’t need to. We have a lot of people who are using less phosphorus over time. You get the same growing habit but are wasting less.”
In addition to lower-phosphorus formulas, growers can customize fertilizer blends to ensure optimal effectiveness based on the type of water and growing media they use. Peters says many fertilizers are born out of situations in which growers sent similar diagnostic samples to the company’s lab. After a year of seeing yellow petunias, for example, JR Peters came up with a blended solution to combat iron, boron and other micronutrient deficiencies for those crops.
Sanda Jovasevic, sales and marketing manager for Master Plant-Prod, Inc., says the Plantex Solutions line was created for a similar purpose: to solve common greenhouse problems.
“The line includes pH Reducer 18-9-18, pH Buffer 18-6-24, No-Stretch 15-0-20, Complete 17-5-17, Complete Plus 19-8-13 and Fertility Plus 19-2-19,” she says. “Each blend is unique in that it responds to groups of growers demanding pH reduction without acid, complete feed with pH reduction, etc.”
Another fertilizer trend that’s full force in Europe and is starting to take hold in the U.S. is the emphasis on formulations with lower sodium levels. As the regulations tighten on greenhouse runoff, growers are likely to ask for fertilizers that won’t require them to filter out high amounts of salt, which can cause growth problems when the water is reused.
One product line that attempts to combat this issue is Nature’s Source. According to National Sales Manager Janet E. Curry, the professional products, which are made from extracting edible seed oils, allow growers to produce plants without putting salts on them.
“The organic compounds and amino acids that are found in the seed are not salt-based and are lower in salts than most water-soluble formulas,” she says. “This results in lower EC, so growers don’t have to use water to leach and can water based on plant needs.”
Even when growers aren’t actively looking to fertilizers to remedy crop problems, manufacturers focus on improving old standbys with improved production practices and top-quality materials. The goal is to ensure the best possible solubility, nutrient uptake and overall growth. Both conventional and organic products have benefited from scientific updates.
With respect to production, many manufacturers have invested in technology that guarantees uniform nutrient levels in every scoop of fertilizer. Master Plant-Prod, Inc. uses a turbo-milling process that results in a consistent, homogenous product with a greater surface area for increased speed of dissolution.
Dramm’s line of Drammatic Organic Fish Fertilizers and Neptune’s Harvest’s line of fish and seaweed fertilizers are crafted using a cold process that turns fresh fish into a hydrolysate, which is a liquid containing natural fish oils, proteins, amino acids, vitamins, hormones and enzymes. Unlike fish fertilizers that are made using emulsions, Drammatic One, O and K (the three blends for the greenhouse industry) and the Neptune’s Harvest formulas don’t compromise any attributes that stimulate plant growth.
As for the materials, product manufacturers are always looking for the best available, whether that means sourcing raw materials from Israel or fishing live ingredients from the sea. Suståne, which produces organic and natural-based fertilizers, has added biochar to its latest product — Suståne 4-4-4+10%Biochar.
Director of Research Jon Sammons says this stable carbon form is ideal for aiding in the proliferation of soil biology and holding plant nutrients in the root zone, making them less susceptible to leaching.
For companies like Growth Products, the key to innovative new formulations lies in the addition of ingredients that help plants help themselves through induced systemic resistance.
“A perfect example of ISR is our Companion Liquid Biological Fungicide, which contains the active ingredient Bacillus subtilis GB03,” says President Clare Reinbergen. “GB03 produces volatile compounds that can trigger defense responses in plants.”
These two examples provide a quick look at the tip of the iceberg, but as customers expect more from their plants, growers are sure to respond by requesting even more options.
The Great Organic Debate
While you’re unlikely to find many growers who actively rail against organic products, there’s still plenty of misinformation about the efficacy of these fertilizers. One reason for this is an insufficient amount of relevant information.
In addition to a lack of practical knowledge, Tim Tetzlaff, Dramm’s compliance officer and technical support for fertilizers, says it’s incredibly difficult to accurately test organic fertilizers. Most tests for NPK tell you how much of each chemical is in the fertilizer at the present time. For organic fertilizers, this means disregarding live materials that will turn into NPK as they break down. This disparity can lead growers to use too much product or have inconsistent results — all while spending a lot of money in the process.
“Most of the products are priced so there isn’t a whole lot of profit margin,” Tetzlaff says. “It’s a lot of trial and error. And for the greenhouses that do have it figured out, it’s a unique niche. You’ve created a situation where you’re different from everyone, so it’s kept hush-hush. As more people get on board and it goes mainstream, more information will be readily available.”
And the industry might be getting closer to making organic growing a priority. The majority of fertilizer companies interviewed mentioned that either their grower clients are asking about organic options or the growers are fielding requests from their clients about sustainable options. This sort of pressure, while not feasible for every greenhouse operation, should encourage more companies to pursue a wider range of fertilizer options.
Despite the buzz, however, the big question remains: Do organic fertilizers work? In a nutshell, yes. But growers need to be conscious of the manufacturer’s user instructions, quality controls and standards. Not all organics are created equal.
Suståne’s Sammons sums it up by saying, “Growers need to educate themselves on the manufacturing process and feedstock of their organic fertilizer. They should look for consistent feedstock in the production and be informed on how their fertilizers are produced. Growers should ask the manufacturer, and if they can’t or won’t answer, then growers should look elsewhere.”
Growers who have found a solution they trust can produce hardier plants, use less fertilizer and keep chemicals out of the greenhouse.
“The growing message with organics is that the plants are more resistant to diseases and insects than the conventional plants because they have to be,” Tezlaff says. “The conventional grower has a lot of chemical Band-Aids to help plants survive and finish off. Organic growers don’t have a whole lot of solutions when things go bad, so they have to be proactive and preventative instead of reactive.”
Equipped For Fertigation
The push for more efficient fertilizer products has impacted the market for fertigation systems, irrigation systems and injectors. As with the formulations, the equipment strives to deliver accurate amounts of fertilizer to ensure optimal crop growth. Hanna Instruments’ Fertilizer Injection Systems, for instance, are built with no moving parts and require minimal service or maintenance. Should problems arise, the parts are manufactured in the U.S. and can be quickly shipped to growers.
“Unlike flow-driven systems of the past, the Hanna Fertigation Systems continuously measure the actual EC and pH of the flow-through, and precisely adjust the concentration of fertilizer into the system,” says Technical Services Manager Michael Bogolawski. “The fertigation systems allow the injection of up to four fertilizers and/or minors, including acid or base for pH control. They’re also equipped to control up to 32 irrigation valves — either sequentially or in groups of two, three, or four at once — for complete automation of the fertigation process.”
These systems, which include the HI10000, HI5000, HI8000 and more, enable growers to cut costs by setting each fertilizer injector to a specific percent, as this allows for custom mixtures. Programs for the irrigation valves have the option of being activated by external switching to allow for spot watering or by an adjustable timer.
For growers who want something that won’t require a wired greenhouse, Dosatron’s water-powered injection technology is an ideal alternative.
“Without electricity, the Dosatron will accurately inject a precise amount of fertilizer or pesticides into a water line,” says Vice President Lela Kelly. “Any time you can save energy, it’s a plus. It allows you to take an injector to places you don’t have electricity, such as out in a field or certain areas of the greenhouse.”
The injector doesn’t discriminate between conventional and organic fertilizers, either. Anything soluble can go into the equipment, even the caustic chemicals that are often necessary to treat water systems.
Kelly also suggests putting a Dosatron in each greenhouse for different crops, which means each plant gets the right amount of the right fertilizer formulation.
“You have to have a certain fertilizer formulation for your geraniums, but you need something different for the plugs,” she says. “Each injector will deliver a different formulation or a different amount. That might mean more ppm for plugs than for finished plants. The Dosatron is an affordable way to do that.”
Although fertigation systems and injectors are probably the equipment you first associate with the process of fertilizing your crops, subirrigation systems also help with nutrient uptake, prevent oversoaking and conserve fertilizer and water.
Flood floors, like those developed and sold by TrueLeaf Technologies, irrigate and feed acres of plants simultaneously from the bottom. This allows the grower to maintain control over the crop inputs without having to check every aisle. Operations and Procurement Manager Jon Irish maintains that this technology is actually the cutting edge.
“There’s a small percentage of growers who have been able to invest in this or have it,” he says. “But once they do, the output is very different from what they had before.”
As fertigation equipment continues to improve, Bogolawski foresees even more time-saving technology.
“The systems of the future should utilize technology to provide optimal efficiency and cost savings to the grower but also be used to improve quality of life — using technology to create easy-to-use and reliable automation, remote monitoring and control,” he says. “This will allow the grower to remain in touch and maintain control of his crops from his smart devices anywhere in the world.”