Sunday 23 November 2014

Ireland's 'Mr Lettuce' gets big boost from using hi-tech water

Tom Prendeville

Published 17/08/2014 | 02:30

MARTIN JONES: Ireland’s lettuce king grows 8m heads of crunchy salad a year in Rush
MARTIN JONES: Ireland’s lettuce king grows 8m heads of crunchy salad a year in Rush

Commercial fruit and vegetable growing is a fiercely competitive business where the profit margins are razor thin and can be as low as 3pc.

Not surprisingly, the number of large growers in Ireland in areas such as lettuce has dwindled in recent years from twenty to just five. Expensive fixed overheads such as winter heating and fertilizer are the bane of a growers life.

However, if a farmer could increase his crop yield by 20pc at no extra cost he could triple his profit margin. A new Irish technology Vi-Aqua which energises water has made the impossible possible.

Developed by Professor Austin Darragh and Dr JJ Leahy of Limerick University's Department of Chemistry & Environmental Science, the eco-friendly technology uses nothing except the natural elements of sunlight, water, carbon dioxide in the air and the minerals in the soil.

Martin Jones of Salad Ways in Rush, County Dublin, is the largest lettuce grower in Ireland. With 22 acres under glass he grows eight million heads of lettuce a year.

A former board member of Bord Bia's Horticulture Board for nine years, he is more familiar than most when it comes to innovations in growing. Now thanks to Vi-Aqua his farm is reaping the benefits: "There has been a 30pc to 40pc improvement in winter production from October to March; which is important, because you sell more lettuce in January than in July due to all the women going on a diet.

"The centre of the glasshouse is usually warmer, but in the winter for about 8 metres all around the perimeter it is generally cooler; so the crop would be 30pc to 60pc lighter. We now get a good crop around the edges of the glasshouses.

"The lettuce grows quicker, and Vi-Aqua keeps it growing all the time. The plants are also more disease resistant and there are no blemishes on the leaves, which is important; with 90pc of the lettuce going to the supermarkets I need a first-class product.

"Vi-Aqua breaks the surface tension in the water so the plant gets the nutrients better from the ground. You get more value out of your water so you use less fertiliser. I am very happy with Vi-Aqua- it gives you the edge." added Martin Jones.

Rush Bulbs and Flowers, which employs 18 staff, is Ireland's largest flower grower. The busy 100-acre farm produces 15,000 cut flowers a day ranging from gladiolas to lilies and tulips. According to director Michael Ruigrok, the new technology has been a winner from the word go.

"We used to lose almost 25pc of the roses that we imported from Kenya. They would develop an air pocket in the stem and wilt - that was the norm. We then put the roses into Vi-Aqua treated water and the problem was reduced to zero.

"With Vi-Aqua we went from two crops of lilies a year to three. Using treated water, the plants are more vibrant looking and you see better colours and good dark rich green stems and leafs.

"The flowers are also much sturdier and less fragile. It is natural and you use less chemicals which is better for the pocket. Between Vi-Aqua and a combination of dung we now use little or no fertiliser," added Michael Ruigrok.

Some technologies are an overnight success. However, for Vi-Aqua it took over a decade to become an overnight success. Despite early recognition from Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, the technology is only now starting to go mainstream commercially.

"A three-year endorsement agreement was set up by Kew Enterprise initially with Vi-Aqua Limited in 2003 to allow the Kew logo/trademark to be used in connection with the Vi-Aqua. The agreement was renewed in 2006," explains Bronwyn Friedlander, spokesperson for Kew.

The unique endorsement lapsed after six years. The Viaqua.com manufacturing plant is based in Limerick.

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