In an industry first for coir production, investment in a state-of-the-art drying facility promises to ensure the issues caused by a two-year long monsoon in Sri Lanka, can never happen again.
Sri Lanka is the world’s largest exporter of coir fibre-based products. Since the introduction of industrial coir manufacturing in the country in the 1900’s, driving market growth is the rising demand for coco peat (coir pith), which is being used on UK farms and worldwide as a natural and eco-friendly growing medium.
Monsoon season is ordinarily concentrated from September to November but during 2014/16, unprecedented rainfall affected the whole coir industry. This is because coir pith is typically dried by natural sunlight, however, continuous rain meant that the coir was insufficiently dried – causing knock on effects for UK growers who use coir substrate to plant crops.
As a result, UK growing media producer at the forefront of coir research and development – Botanicoir – is investing 1.2 million Euros into the first ever completely automated coir drying facility to be produced and to ensure that this situation will be avoided in future.
It’s been a tough year for the coir substrate producer, yet despite the circumstances, most of Botanicoir’s orders have been successfully fulfilled, to enable growers to plant on time.
Normally, the growbags are delivered in dehydrated compressed slabs. The only way Botanicoir could fulfil orders was to ship them partially hydrated – and in a year where orders were up by 30%, this was no mean feat.
“For the 2015/16 season, as we were unable to dry the coir, the volume we needed to ship was bigger. Instead of one container of dehydrated grow bags, we had to send three and a half containers of partially hydrated bags from Sri Lanka and this meant a cost increase of 350%,” says Kalum Balasuriya, Botanicoir managing director.
“We didn’t pass this cost onto growers. But, we’re aware that it’s unsustainable to risk such a situation happening again, this is why we’re investing in a new drying facility.”
“Our growers have been fantastic. They’ve had more pallets to unload and the bags were more compacted due to the increased weight. Loosening bags has been more time consuming. For bare root plants it wasn’t an issue, because the plant is simply pushed in with a hook, but for tray plants that are more established, you have to loosen the bag up and make a hole in order to plant it.”
“A lot of the growers have said that although this hasn’t been ideal – they really appreciate what we did to get the product to them on time. The growers are the life blood of the business – so we we’re prepared to take a financial hit to ensure they could still operate in the same way,” says Kalum.
“This is why we’re taking big steps to future-proof our products,” he says.
This autumn, the new 30-metre-long drying facility will be installed, powered by a biomass boiler fuelled with wood chips from a renewable source. The future implications are vast, because 80% (28,000 kilos) of the daily required volume will be dried and ready for production as soon as it comes off the conveyer.
“The other 20% will come from existing drying yards, dried naturally. This means that in a good year, we will have the ability to produce an extra 80% of product on top of the natural drying – and with the rise in demand we’re seeing, we need this development,” says Kalum.
After 12 months of dedicated research and development from manufacturers in Germany, the facility will dry the coir as it runs along a conveyer. The heat source from the biomass boiler powering it will go through a number of heat exchangers and, controlled by a number of sensors, six different types of heat will be applied at various stages, according to the moisture content of the raw material. The machine will only require one person to control it as it’s fully automated.
“We know how committed Botanicoir is to the UK soft fruit market” comments Mark Davies, commercial head of fruit at Agrovista UK. “This has been shown in the lengths and expense that they have gone to, to ensure growers get product on farm, on time. This latest development of the dryer, in addition to some very new exciting news to follow soon, gives me the confidence that Agrovista has chosen the best possible partner to work with in this market place.”
According to Kalum, the investment is crucial to the growth of the business, “and, with a 30% rise in orders this year, demand is growing at a phenomenal rate. We’re hugely excited about the implications this investment will have. The drying facility will ensure more consistency of product that meets the specification and is delivered on time, every time.”