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The biggest question I get when I would tell someone I was touring a cucumber farm was: WHY? Fair enough…
When we did WE Cann™ in Leamington I asked a number of growers a question: Out of the new entrants from the local GH community that were getting into cannabis, who is most likely to succeed?
Two names always came up: Bert Mucci and Peter Quiring. As you may know Bert Mucci is JV’ing with Cronos on a +800,000 sq ft GH in Kingsville, Ontario and Peter Quiring is JV’ing with Auxly on a 1,400,000 sq ft GH in Leamington.
The other reasons I am intrigued are
- the level of automation I heard Mucci Farms had,
- the fact that Peter Quiring also builds GH, and
- the genetics… and the time it takes to dial in a new type of crop [with known genetics] in one of these mammoth facilities.
December 27, 2018 I went to Mucci Farms to tour their cucumber greenhouses. [I have been invited to tour Nature Fresh Farms and South Essex Fabricating, Peter’s GH and GH manufacturing business, respectively, in January/February 2019].
The Mucci Farms Kingsville campus is sprawling. I toured the two 14-acre cucumber greenhouses. There are two 15-acre tomatoe greenhouses on the same site. Between the two sets of greenhouses there are bunk houses that house the 300 Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program employees [SAWP is Federal program that was initiated the Lester B. Pearson administration].
Other than cucumbers, Mucci Farms also grows a number of other types of produce (a variety of peppers, eggplant, lettuce & herb, and most recently strawberries.
The cucumber GH were built in 2016. They grow English, Mini, Snack sized and the smallest size “poppers”.
The greenhouses are the same type we discussed in our Aphria Diamond Tour. That being the grow boxes being placed on troughs that are suspended from the ceiling on troughs. Below and between the troughs there is a set of heating rails. The rails also double as the transportation lines where an employee sits on a trolley, as they go the length of the trough to trim or harvest the produce from the plants. There are other suspended heating lines, as these vine plants grow to a height of about 8 to 10 feet from the trough.
Unlike cannabis… cucumbers and other produce are picked from the growing plants during the plants life cycle. The cucumber crops are replaced 3 times a year but are harvested daily. It takes 1.5 days to replant a fully cleaned 14-acre greenhouse.
So unlike cannabis, where the whole plants will be removed each cycle from the GH to harvest, cucumbers are picked on a regular basis.
The cucumber GH account for 100 of the SAWP housed on the site.
Throughout the facility there are induction lines embedded in the floor. These lines are a “highway” for the automated “tractors” that pull the harvest carts from the floor of the greenhouse to the packaging facility.
To harvest the fruit a worker fills the containers as they ride down the trough lines, the containers are loaded and at the end of the trough they are placed onto rolling carts pulled by the automated tractors. The tractors and carts are really akin to a small train. Each cart has an RFID chip near the wheel. Each employee also is measured on their production via automated handheld devices that upload. Employees get bonussed for better production.
The full train of carts returns to the unloading bay. The containers are automatically unloaded via automated tipping machine. The empty carts are refilled with washed trays, and then the whole train goes through a sanitization station. Then, the entire train returns to the greenhouse.
One of the 14-acre greenhouses [English Seedless Cucumbers] was being cleaned and readied for a new crop while I was there. They were in the process of shredding all the organic materials before clean up and replanting. This GH does not have supplemental lighting.
The second 14-acre GH that I toured does have supplemental lighting, which is necessary to grow the smaller sized cucumbers year-round. This GH grew the mini, snack sized and poppers cucumbers.
These vine plants are suspended via strings to an upper wire support. As they grow [and cucumbers grow very fast] the vines are clipped to the supporting string. As they are harvested, the vines are lowered, and the newer section of produce harvested. There is no mechanized harvesting. It is done by hand and always at eye level. Thus the need to raise and lower the plants. They can be harvested at heights other than eye level, but the safety measures and the number of containers an employee can fill is limited once the scissor lift is raised. The production metrics decrease if the employee is required to raise the lift, thus the desire to harvest at eye level.
This is what struck me most about the plants in the greenhouse: uniformity.
The genetics that they purchase are generated by a third party via tissue culture. They do not have mother rooms and clones taking up valuable floor space. Looking down the rows the leaf structures are all at the same height. The new flowers – all at the same height. The fruit – all at the same height.
The genetics for this operation are dialed in. Dialing in the full facility took time as the various seasons lead to different types of growing conditions, even indoors. It took a full year cycle of growing to collect the data necessary to dial in the facility.
Like cannabis, temperature control and humidity control are very important. Humidity is actually more of a concern in winter months, as when it is cold they cannot open the roof vents to lower humidity. They have overhead fans to circulate the air.
They also have an integrated pest management system. Like Cannabis Thrips can be a problem. Sticky tape is suspended at the maximum height of the vines to capture Thrips and other pests. They do use “good bugs” to eat bad bugs similar to cannabis.
Pest management is about “management”. You are going to have pests. You must manage the issue.
When I asked about their newest crop Mucci had started growing– strawberries – I asked them how they decided on what type of genetics to grow. The process started with 17 varieties that they could grow in a greenhouse. They eventually reduced that by trial and error to one variety, and then they brought in one additional variety from Europe that grows well in greenhouses and was not well received by the market. This process also took over a year.
And this is one of the main reasons I wanted to tour a vegetable GH. The genetics that cannabis cultivators are using in a mass scale GH are nowhere near as advanced as these cucumber GH genetics. If it takes a seasoned operator like Mucci a year plus to dial in produce that he knows well, investors in cannabis expecting these new mass scale GHs to be efficient day-one are in for a surprise.
Moving to the packaging automation side of the operation. It could best be described as a roller coaster with up to three levels of lines delivering produce to the packaging lines and returning the containers to the GH floor.
Containers are automatically tipped into the conveyor lines. There is a line for the large English cucumbers and separate lines for the smaller cucumbers. The sorting process is heavily automated. As is the packaging, whether it is taking a flat box to make a shipping box or placing the cucumbers in the boxes and packages. This packaging facility is efficient!
As the cucumbers are sorted they also are individually pictured at least 3 times and length, diameter and weight of each cucumber is recorded. The data of the end product is tied all the way back to the original planting and the harvesting and has been recorded throughout the grow to harvest to package cycle. This data collection, and subsequent interpretation, is how you dial in your yields and efficiencies.
Viscon provided the automated lines for Mucci.
I was not altogether surprised that some of the automation was borrowed from the automotive industry. Windsor-Essex is an automotive industry hub.
The mini cucumber station can pack 24,000 cucumbers per hour. They pick the cucumbers off the conveyor and place them in individual consumer packaging. The filled packages are shrink wrapped and put into a larger bulk packaging.
Can this level of efficiency translate to cannabis? Eventually is likely the right answer, but there will be limitations.
Cucumbers went from harvest directly to packaging. Cannabis is harvested, dried, cured and then packaged or formulated into some other format. Each of these steps adds another level of complexity and resultant delays in harvest to market.
I want to thank Magda Corredor, Production Manager for the great and informative tour and Bett Mucci and Stephanie Cappelli for arranging same for me.
I look forward to seeing the cannabis GH when it is up and running.