Water issues are front and center for any grower in drought-afflicted California. However, when Carpinteria, CA-based Westerlay Orchids upgraded its floors in 2017, the company quickly realized benefits beyond water savings, including reduced natural gas consumption, labor savings, and better-quality plants.
Westerlay produces pink, purple, and white orchids under 7 acres of greenhouses. Owner Toine Overgaag, who calls himself an innovator by nature, persistently looks for ways to continue to grow and improve the operation. Last summer, Overgaag replaced the operation’s ground surface with a state-of-the-art recirculation system imported from Holland.
“We’re always looking for ways to improve not just the quality of our orchids, but who we are,” Overgaag says. “I looked at what a lot of greenhouses are doing back in Holland, and after we did some analysis, it was clear this is the right thing to do and the direction we all need to be headed in.”
Overgaag and his family emigrated from Holland, where regulators have enforced water conservation measures like those launched voluntarily by Westerlay. The system design, consisting of a graded ground surface and liners to channel water into a French drain and chute, was developed by Dutch company ErfGoed B.V.
“They designed the system, sourced most of the materials, and supervised the project while we installed it,” Overgaag says. “The entire install took about 10 weeks, encompassing just under 300,000 square feet of greenhouse space. The ErfGoed supervisors said that our team was among the most impressive they have ever worked with.”
Wide Range of Benefits
Westerlay forecasts that the new system will reduce water usage by 38%, a move that raises the standard for sustainability in an industry that depends on the frequently scarce resource. The annual savings of 11.2-acre feet, or more than 2 million gallons of water, compares to eight typical California households.
Another payoff beyond the conservation of water has been a reduction in natural gas consumption. Channeling the water provides a drier environment in the greenhouse, which then requires less heating to maintain temperature and humidity. Westerlay has forecasted it will also reduce its natural gas consumption by 11%, an amount in terms of carbon footprint that is equivalent to taking 29 cars off the road.
“We were pleasantly surprised by the later savings we experienced,” Overgaag says. “We expected some savings, as the floor should reduce humidity and therefore we would heat less to remove moisture.”
The biggest benefit, Overgaag says, has been that the lower humidity, especially in the evenings, is leading to better growth.
“The plants have stronger roots, which translates into vigorous growth and more flowers,” he says.
One lesson the company learned along the way was to plan for enough water storage for drain water.
“We have barely enough storage, and it took us a while to learn how to schedule watering so that we wouldn’t have issues with tanks being overfilled,” he says.
Overgaag says Westerlay prides itself on producing the highest-quality orchids, and the ability to deliver on quality standards and environmental sustainability marries the company’s two biggest priorities.
In fact, sustainability is at the core of anything Westerlay does. The company regularly invites MPS (More Profitable Sustainability) for environmental inspection and certification, to ensure it follows the best environmental practices for sustainability. MPS issued its highest grade to Westerlay in each of the past four years. Overgaag says that while Westerlay regularly reports to local and state regulators, MPS certification goes above and beyond those requirements and ensures that Westerlay will always be in compliance, while voluntarily maintaining standards that exceed the letter of the law.