With 20,000m2 of high-tech greenhouse space close to Faro on the Portuguese Algarve, GroVida is one of Europe’s biggest producers of medical crops and is able to supply GMP and GACP-accredited inflorescences (flower buds) and extracts worldwide. Dror Avital, the company’s production director, works exclusively with Grodan’s stone wool growing media in both plant raising and cultivation. We asked him to tell us more about his production-related challenges and solutions.

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As a qualified agronomist born and educated in Israel, Dror Avital has been advising medical crop growers around the world since 2016. He moved to Portugal just over three years ago to help set up the company GroVida. “I was involved in the design and construction of the facility, and then subsequently set up the operational side,” explains Avital. “The pandemic made it more difficult than usual to bring in contractors and turnkey companies, so to save both time and money we decided to hand-build the greenhouse ourselves.” Their hard work resulted in 20,000m2 of high-tech greenhouse space plus a 250m2 post-harvest area for the trimming, drying and packing operation. GroVida attained its licence for the cultivation, import and export of medical crops from the Portuguese Authority of Medicines and Health Products (INFARMED, I.P.) in 2020 and made its first commercial export of medical crops within the EU in the first half of 2021. The company currently employs around 50 people, including 36 on the cultivation team.

In terms of sales, GroVida currently offers white labelling services to known medical crops brands. “However, we believe that branding is the future, so that will be the next step for our company – which is why we’re investing in a state-of-the-art 2,700m2 European Hub including drying, dosing, packaging and distribution capabilities on scale, allowing our clients to be able to expand with us,” he states.

Journey through the greenhouse in waves

“I’d always used Grodan’s stone wool growing media in my previous ventures before coming to Portugal, so I was in no doubt that I wanted to use them here too,” continues Avital. A plant’s journey through the greenhouse starts in the mothers’ room containing all the genetic stock. “From there, the cuttings are transferred to the rooting room, where they are rooted in Grodan Max AO 36/40 no-hole cubes. Then we move them to one of our three vegetation rooms where we control the light to encourage them to produce branches and leaves. They are planted on Grodan Max6.5 cubes which have a 40/40 hole for the Max AO. Lastly, they are moved to one of our eight flowering rooms, each comprising 1,900m2 of cultivation space. We have between 1,000 and 2,000 Grodan Uni-Slabs in each room simultaneously, depending on the planting density; we work with a plant density of 2,000 in the summer, but scale back to 1,000 in the winter due to the light and humidity situation.”

Avital explains that the plants move through all these rooms in batches or ‘waves’: “The 1,000 to 2,000 plants in each flowering room form one batch. They have been together from start to finish. At the end of the cycle, after around two months in the flowering room, we cut the whole batch simultaneously and clean the room ready for the next batch. This wave system is still quite an unusual approach within medical crop cultivation, but it enables us to minimize the risk of contamination and maintain the batch integrity.” The sanitary situation is the absolute top priority for customers of medical crops, he says: “It’s even more important than the potency of the product. If the medical crop isn’t clean enough to comply with the pharmaceutical rules, it has to be irradiated and everyone wants to avoid that if possible.”

Improved sanitary level

Thanks to being a non-organic material, Grodan’s brown wool growing media – which have been specially developed for use with medical crop plants – have helped GroVida to improve the sanitary level and microbial counts, he continues: “We used to have to irradiate 70% of our batches, but it’s now down to only 20% and hopefully we’ll achieve zero eventually. I also like the fact that the substrate material doesn’t fall into gutters and clog up the drainage like soil or coco would. Besides that, tiny fungus gnats love wet soil and – as vectors for spreading disease – they can be a real problem in any nursery. But since we started using Grodan’s brown wool blocks instead of coco in January 2021, we don’t really need sticky traps anymore.”

According to Avital, GroVida is one of the first medical crop growers in Portugal to switch from coco to stone wool for the cultivation stage. “Despite the benefits of stone wool, irrigation can be super tricky. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can seriously stress the plants and end up having to destroy the whole room – which can be a hugely expensive mistake in terms of lost revenue. That’s why I’ve been using Grodan’s GroSens sensors since March 2021. I’ve found that they give me a level of control and data collection that I couldn’t have with any other substrate,” he explains. “It takes just a few minutes to print out the daily irrigation reports and all the information about the water content and EC is there at your fingertips as the basis for decision-making. In fact, the ability to use accurate sensors is the biggest benefit of stone wool over coco, in my opinion.”

Better growers

“I still do a three-hour ‘plant walk’ through the greenhouse every day; I check the climate, irrigation and plant health, including any signs of diseases or pests, and then I decide on which tasks need doing,” he explains. “But the data from the sensors enables us to monitor the plants even more closely based on comparable, repeatable data rather than just our own subjective assessments. As a result, we can give the plants better treatment – in other words, we can be better growers.”

“In order to further optimize the crop performance and open up new opportunities for automation, we’re currently working together with Grodan to develop a tailor-made protocol based on the e-Gro online software platform, he adds. “The team are providing excellent support to us in this process, which is a great example of our strong relationship with Grodan and their openness to innovative thinking.”

Firm belief

“I’m so pleased with the results and the service I receive from Grodan that I’m actively encouraging other medical crop growers I know in Israel and elsewhere to switch to brown wool. I believe firmly in the substrate and in the GroSens system. There’s no doubt in my mind that, based on the technology available today, this is the best way to grow medical crops for the medical and pharmaceutical industry,” he concludes.

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