“The history of food farming” in my backyard: the origins of greenhouse horticulture

“The future history of food farming” in my backyard: the origins of greenhouse horticulture

Timo Raus in a cannabis greenhouse
Timo Raus October 31, 2023
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Over the summer my wife and I moved within in The Westland Region. A lot more space for our dog and a place with even more history. It even has a traditional Westland style fruit/grape-wall dating back to around 1875! It now is our cultural duty to take good care of this part of history. The fruit/grape-wall ended up in a restoration project and brand-new hobby greenhouse has been built to preserve property tradtions.

We recently got handed down pictures of the property dating back to 1926 past down by previous owners. As a history lover and greenhouse fanatic, I simply couldn’t help myself to dust of my books and maps about the region and share a thing or two about how our greenhouse industry developed into the international frontrunner of high-tech horticulture it is today by two different paths. This all based of pictures from my own backyard!

The Westland region in the Netherlands where I was born, partially raised and currently live has a rich history that characterised itself by its pioneering spirit in food farming. Over the centuries, it has evolved to become a powerhouse in food farming, driven by its continuous innovation and development, a hardworking ethos, and the adaptability to modify its conditions to suit agricultural needs

Fruit/Grape Walls, where it all started

In the 19th century, there was a shift from livestock farming and agriculture to horticulture, traditional farms gradually made way for horticultural farms and orchards. This was driven by the growing demand for fruits and vegetables in the cities of The Hague & Delft, which were easily accessible by boats through the canals. To protect fruit trees and grapevines from strong sea winds, tall fruite/grape-walls, varying between 2 to 2.5 meters tall were built. These walls, made of brick, not only provided protection but also retained solar heat, significantly advancing the ripening of crops. This allowed growers to bring their produce earlier to the market at a higher price! By 1878, there was almost 180 kilometers of these fruit/grape walls in the Westland region, especially larger in towns like Naaldwijk and Poeldijk, of which the latter still uses a grape-vine in their emblem. Today, throughout the Westland region, out of the almost 180km there is only 400m left.

My own grapewall after restauration

Interesting fact: During the restoration I came to the discovery that the backbones and foundations of these walls were traditionally filled with ruble. My wall was filled up with, pieces of old bricks, broken porcelain, and broken glass. Both from bottles and flat-glass most-likely from “shooting windows”.

In the late 19th century, driven by the ongoing Dutch growers’ quest to improve yields and/or profits, the first glass structures made their debut. These early versions were made by placing glass windows against the fruit walls, known as "shooting windows", which were basically wooden window frames fitted with small glass panes. Although they reduced dependency on climatic conditions, these structures had their limitations – being cumbersome in terms of labor, expensive, and lacking ventilation. Quickly adapting, by around 1850, the first fixed glass structures, called wall-greenhouses, began to emerge. Despite their popularity, with over 22 kilometers of the 180 kilometers of grape/fruit walls covered in glass by 1878, these wall greenhouses are now a very-rare sight in Westland.

IJsselstijn, M., & Van Mil, Y. (2016).

Progress didn’t stop there. The next major leap in greenhouse innovation was the development of the glass "houses" or (grape) greenhouses (1G). These were entirely made of glass, eliminating the need for walls. Inspired by Belgian designs, the first of these in Westland was built in Poeldijk in 1888. In 1912 there were about 60 hectares of these new “grape-greenhouses”. By 1939, these structures covered almost 645 hectares, becoming a defining feature of the Westland landscape and making it “City of Glass”. The market was booming and grapes were even exported. An incredible phenome given that export of perishable fruits and vegetables was almost unheard of back in the first half of the last century.

nteresting fact: Where in my books about wine and viticulture, I constantly stumble upon the influence of Phylloxera and the further development of varieties. In my research for this article, only after very septic search I found only one coincidental mention in “The Grape Sickness, Uncinula necator in the middle of the 19th century” by A.J. Vijverberg in 2005, where it describes the destruction of all grape-crops in the Westland region in both 1852 & 1853. Besides that, not a single mention. I can only guess that is because grapes back then weren’t cultivated as monoculture.

The market for Dutch-grown tables-grapes however came to an end during the second World War. After that it never got picked up again, as the Dutch cultivation became outcompeted by Southern European countries. Strongly influenced by the innovations and developments in transportation means during the war.

1966: A grape greenhouse in my backyard

 

Flat-glass: The ancestor to Dutch greenhouses

Parallel to the innovations for the cultivation of grapes, was the introduction of single-paned frames around the 1880s. These were primarily used for vegetable cultivation such as melons and beans. By the early 20th century, greenhouses made of these frames, known as "warehouses," covered 420 hectares by 1939.

IJsselstijn, M., & Van Mil, Y. (2016).

The early 20th century marked a renewed flourishing period for Westland, establishing it as a prime horticultural hub compared to other Dutch regions. By 1904, with its 134 hectares of flat-glass, Westland, along with nearby Delft and Rotterdam, stood head and shoulders above regions like North Holland, which had only 26 hectares. Just over two decades later, Westland’s under-glass vegetable and fruit cultivation accounted for approximately 75% of the entire Dutch glass surface area.

As depicted best in the illustrations above, it is the flat-glass that ended up to become the greenhouses as we know them today. The continuous challenge to have produce on the market, required heating systems, better irrigation systems and on and on. To accommodate this, more space was needed and the double-flat-glass beds where raised. This eventually led to greenhouses people could walk in. Up until the early seventies greenhouse construction companies were carpenters, and the heating system providers were blacksmiths. In the late sixties and early seventies the first climate computers were introduced in the late sixties & seventies by renown companies we still know and work with today; Ridder, Priva & Hoogendoorn. Many companies supplying to the under-glass cultivation also stood the test of time, such as Royal Brinkman that started by selling rope to bundle asparagus with back in 1885!

1960: Flat-glass structures with left the still present chestnut tree

 

Conditions for the industry to develop

There were several factors that played into Westland’s rise as the number one horticultural region of The Netherlands. Its proximity to urban markets such as Delft and The Hague, in combination with excellent waterway connections to further cities proved very beneficial. The moderate coastal climate, characterized by mild winters and cool sunny summers, gave Westland farmers a competitive edge, allowing them to bring their fresh produce to the market slightly earlier than their inland counterparts.

Beyond these geographical and climatic conditions, in my opinion, the very essence of Westland’s success lay in the character of its people. A thesis dating back to 1933 written by A.A.A. Verbraeck described the Westlanders as having an unparalleled work ethic, entrepreneurial spirit, and a keen desire for financial success. Their readiness to modify their environment for horticulture, be it adapting the landscape or the soil quality, is a great example:

Turning the odds into your favor

However, not all of Westland had naturally suitable soil for horticulture. While areas like 's-Gravenzande, Monster, and Naaldwijk had favorable sandy soils for horticulture, others required significant modification. Large-scale sanding projects were initiated, with up to five million cubic meters of sand being transported to improve the land before 1950. To bring this into scale the size of the island of Manhattan dug out or filled-up by 60m.

In their pursuit of fertile land and profitable cultivation, the Westland’s growers resorted to organic fertilizers, using silt from ditches, pig manure, and even human waste from surrounding cities. This adaptability, while not completely unique to  the Westland, demonstrates their relentless drive to create the best conditions for farming.

1960: Flatglass and the wooden grape-greenhouse on the right.

The journey of Westland from a traditional agricultural region to a horticultural powerhouse is a true testament to three core principles:

· Continuous Innovation: From fruit walls to sophisticated glass greenhouses, due and despite of the market conditions the kept innovating; Westland has always been at the forefront of agricultural innovation.

· Hardworking Mentality: The determination and work ethic of the Westlanders have been key in the region’s success.

· Adapting to Changing Conditions: Whether it was modifying the soil or changing farming techniques, the Westlanders never shied away from altering their environment to meet their horticultural needs.

Consult the past to foresee the future

It was the first climate computer in the seventies that allowed greenhouses to become higher, and I’m certain it is again climate computers that will propel our industry forward in the mid and late twenties. Not this time by eliminating a manual opening of a ventilation window, but by eliminating a portion complex day-to-day tasks of both growers and workers through branches of AI such as machine learning and robotics. This will empower growers to focus on their niche produce, market demand and give them time for their intangible parts of their added value.

Today, the greenhouse industry in the Westland stands under political and economic pressure, regardless of their global position as frontrunner in horticultural excellence. If we as region and as greenhouse industry stay close to the principles that brought us where we are today, I’m certain that the challenges will be overcome, leading to new innovations in horticulture.

Fortunately, the principles of innovation, hard work, and adaptability still runs through the veins of most men & women in the Dutch greenhouse industry to create the Future of Food Farming together!