Will it be a quieter winter? Mark Bruinen repeats the question. "No, it's not that quiet. Besides, we like to be as busy as possible." This is evident after a glance at the website of M-Force Horti Solutions v.o.f. The range of services is broad. Cultivation advice, personnel management or breakdown service, Mark does it all to support growers.
The former chrysanthemum grower has been active as a service provider in horticulture since 2011. The specialization in pepper cultivation is striking. Mark himself calls it "dumb luck". "When I started for myself, it soon came my way. A grower in the neighborhood needed a cultivation specialist. We took on those tasks." Mark says 'we'. That refers to Mark as a man in the field, and his wife who takes care of administration and planning. "For example, she also draws up cultivation schedules." In addition, Mark can rely on additional specialists from his network when things get busy.
It soon became clear that Mark could remain active in pepper cultivation. "I specialized in it from the beginning. I found it an even more challenging crop than chrysanthemum cultivation." Today, his customer base consists predominantly of chrysanthemum and pepper growers. "Both crops are quite similar. With a young plant, you take care of a somewhat level climate and as the crop grows bigger, you start steering more generatively. The biggest difference is that chrysanthemum is a short-day plant, while pepper is hugely light-loving. But apart from that, there are quite a few similarities in terms of control, temperature, and climate."
In his work, Mark travels all around the Netherlands. The company's focus is on Agriport A7, near Andijk where M-Force is based, Westland, the Bleiswijk region, and a few other greenhouse areas. "In case of an evening job further from home, I stay overnight," he says. This typifies how Mark is committed to growers. Even with breakdown services, for example. "In the past, when I was a grower myself, I didn't go on holiday. You were always afraid of breakdowns, of letting things go and I had no backup. We want to be that backup for growers."
Mark points out that growers used to be able to use the so-called 'farm care' service, in which growers could rely on experienced substitutes. "Now we just offer that service. Before we start observing, we do an introductory round on the farm. That way we know what to look out for and where problems might arise. You can then anticipate that."
M-Force's home office in Andijk
Challenging pepper year
2022 proved to be a challenging pepper year for growers. Mark also saw it reflected in the field. "Aphids have been an issue, besides of course energy. We cannot prevent aphids, but we do reach out to growers with prevention tips. Important these days is the proper and early use of biological control agents. But chemical pest control may still prove necessary. If so, you also have to have the courage to draw up an x-number of spraying schedules. We help growers with this too."
Fallout in peppers was another problem this year. Several surveys were already done, Mark knows. "In our view, it has to do with growing more energy-efficiently. Growers who started drier with their substrate seem to have had fewer problems than growers who started just a bit wetter. I have still seen top productions from growers who have remained free of problems. In a colder crop, the watering should also be adjusted. If you don't, you run the risk of overwatering and weakening the plant early on. In the past, mistakes like that were less noticeable, but back then it was easier to heat the greenhouse to keep the plant going anyway."
Extra pair of eyes
As a former grower, Mark can always fall back on his practical experience. In crop protection, that also helps. "You know what pests there are, but also how things work in practice in the greenhouse. That includes, for instance, how spraying equipment works. How do you adjust them optimally, for instance? An extra pair of eyes can sometimes help prevent that one mistake someone who takes care of crop protection daily still makes. As a grower in a large location, it is not possible to keep an eye on everything."
The same applies to labor, Mark observes. "Growers work with foreign employees. That sometimes causes communication problems. If we notice this, we also sometimes dare to point out that maybe appointing a staff member who is proficient in several languages could help, or by appointing the right people to the right place, just to name a crazy crossroad."
Overnight control/disinfection by fogging carried out by M-Force
What sets M-Force's services apart is that there is time to look just that little bit further. "We look beyond just the crop and its condition. Does something seem wrong with the watering? Then we don't hesitate to take a look at the installation there too. We try to do what the grower would otherwise do himself. Growers today have so many tasks that they are far from being able to do everything. That's where we can make a difference for them."
Even if the greenhouses remain empty for a little longer this winter, Mark expects. "That's just the time to take a moment to sort everything out." In pepper cultivation, the winter period without lighting is always a bit quieter. "Here I see the biggest change being the installation and use of more screens." In chrysanthemums, there is a bigger change this winter. "Some growers opt for (full) LED and keep growing, others still have SON-T hanging above the crop or run on a boiler." Mark doesn't yet have growers with full LED as his customers. "Especially the growers with poor gas positions are now being charged heavily and sometimes have to make hard choices. Where possible, we try to keep taking steps and looking for solutions with these growers as well."