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Casey Houweling, the 'founding father' of the Ultra-Clima greenhouse: 'KUBO believed in the idea'

Would the Ultra-Clima greenhouse have come about even if a tomato grower in California had not suffered from whitefly? Presumably, yes. Although it did help that the grower was not just anybody: Casey Houweling. Nor, for that matter, was the greenhouse builder responsible. Together with KUBO, the American grower with "Dutch roots" was at the forefront of the greatest innovation in greenhouse construction. 'Will it be 34 degrees today with a humidity of 5%? We can easily deal with that.'

'We had a lot of white fly problems,' Casey begins his story. 'Those also brought a virus, the ToCV virus. I went to Spain to see what they were doing there against a problem like this. Those growers were using insect screens. We immediately ordered 20,000 of them. The supplier didn't have that much capacity and outsourced production to an Italian manufacturer. Six months later, all those screens fell down because they were not UV-proof!

Hindsight is where the evolution of the Ultra-Clima greenhouse begins, Casey says. He is a former owner of Houwelings Tomatoes, which grows tomatoes in California and Canada on 90 acres, one-third of which are Ultra-Clima. 'Those insect screens cost cooling capacity, you had light loss and you got a shitty climate.' To still keep insects out, the idea of creating overpressure in the greenhouse arises. 'We started experimenting on a small scale in part of the greenhouse with hoses and a cooling pad. KUBO developed a concept together with Enerdes, a Dutch supplier of greenhouse climate systems. After only a year and a half, we had the first 16-hectare Ultra-Clima greenhouse at KUBO. Yes, 16 acres. We felt we had learned enough.'

The concept of the revolutionary greenhouse appears to be working, although modifications are involved. Casey: "We started with one hose in the greenhouse. At the beginning of the fan, you have an airflow of 100%. But at the end of the hose, that airflow dropped to zero because the hose makes a 90-degree angle. So you got temperature differences in the crop. With a smoke machine we tested how the air moved through the greenhouse.' The solution is simple: add a second hose, over a distance of 125 meters. 'That was the actual beginning of the success fifteen years ago. Now you see the Ultra-Clima greenhouse all over the world. We immediately had the concept patented. But we learned: a patent is difficult to protect. Copycats are always there.'

Doubts about working elsewhere in theworld
Already a global success was not calculated once the greenhouse proved its worth in the California climate. 'At the beginning, I had doubts about whether it could work elsewhere in the world. But the more I started learning, the more I started believing in it. You have a huge spread of possibilities. Even in deserts or extremely dry climates, you can now grow vegetables much more cheaply. You can grow in areas where water is hard to come by.'

Different method of growing
The new greenhouse also brings with it a different method of growing. When did he and his cultivation staff master that method? 'You have to learn from all the options that an Ultra-Clima greenhouse brings. You have to introduce a different growing style. I sometimes use the example of a car. For a motorist, it's easy to reach the top speed of a Volkswagen. But in a Maserati, you have to be a very good driver. I think the process of getting the hang of it took about five years. Even with all the changes in the climate computer. And now a grower says: oh, will it be 34 degrees today with a humidity of 5%? We can easily deal with that. The only thing still difficult is high humidity in a tropical climate.'

Game changer
The Ultra-Clima greenhouse is a real game changer, he observes as its founding father. In a pressurized greenhouse, the roof remains cleaner, you need 95% fewer vents and the greenhouse can do with less CO2. Changes have been made over the years, however. They are not very big changes, it is still the same greenhouse. KUBO has adapted the production method to produce more efficiently, energy efficiency has been increased and CO2 emissions have been reduced. But we are far from there. Much more is possible than just the climate. I'm thinking of innovations in autonomous growing, in maintenance, in labor management. Robots are coming. People want to work shorter and shorter hours.'

Friendly relationship with KUBO
Would the Ultra-Clima greenhouse have ever seen the light of day if Casey had not engaged KUBO? Casey shakes his head. 'From day one, KUBO believed in the idea. They supported us, they developed the concept with us. From a working relationship it eventually evolved into a friendly relationship. And we have had a relationship with KUBO for decades huh. I still knew Walter's grandfather. That made it easier to take this step together. For Houweling Tomatoes, KUBO is a strategic partner. You have to be able to trust each other.'

Confidence that goes even further than just building our own greenhouses. 'What I'm still very proud of is the Seeds of Tomorrow project, a propagation greenhouse we had built together in Guatemala in an area with a lot of poverty.'

For more information:
KUBO Horticultural Projects
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