An Overview of Commercial Cucumber Production
Credit: Chris VoorbergLong English cucumbers are a favorite of many chefs and consumers alike for their enjoyable taste, edible skin and for the fact that they are seedless. They are also very good for you because they contain a considerable quantity of water. It is however a curiosity to many people how these vegetables are grown to supply such a large market. Being raised on a 15 acre farm focusing entirely on hydroponic, greenhouse cucumber production has given me a chance to see the inner workings, as well as experience the day to day labour and business decisions that go into a profitable operation.
The first stage of growth takes an average of 21 days from seed sowing in a high density propagation house to transplanting into a full scale greenhouse. The seeds are placed into cubes of growing medium lined up in tight rows on the floor, and covered with vermiculite granules to allow germination to take place. After a few days they will emerge from the vermiculite and sprout up into a young plant. After 7-10 days they will be spread out evenly in the propagation house to allow the leaves room to expand as the seedlings develop into larger plants. They will either be watered using overhead sprinklers or a flood floor system. In some cases these propagation houses are on site, but in many scenarios a company that specializes in seedlings will grow and ship the plants by truck to the production greenhouse.
Transplanting and Growth
This is the adolescent stage of growth, where the plant will be removed from the propagation area and transplanted onto larger bags or pots of growth medium in the greenhouse. Each plant is provided with a small drip irrigation supply hose which will feed it a nutrient solution. The quantity of water and regularity of irrigation will often be controlled by computer systems that monitor heat, humidity, temperature and light intensity. The plants will be gently trained vertically with string until they are about 6 feet tall, and then the head of the plant is pruned off allowing lateral shoots to flourish and develop a hanging canopy.
The question of pesticides is a hot button topic in today's agriculture industry. In greenhouses, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs are very useful in controlling insect pests. By means of combining biological control agents (ie. natural predator mites) with less harmful pesticides, the consumer can rest assured that there will be virtually no harmful residues on the product. In fact, a new trend in spray mixes for controlling pests is the use of active ingredients such as fungi or bacteria strains that are harmless to humans, but will attack target insects.
Credit: Chris VoorbergAbout four weeks after transplanting, the plants will have fruit that is ready to be picked. This means that in a total of seven weeks, the crop has gone from seed to fruit production. The cucumbers grow so fast at this stage that they will be picked every day for two or three weeks, at which point production will slow down and they can be picked every other day. All picking and crop work is done by hand, as technology has not yet made mechanization possible in this aspect of the business. In most cases the crop can be picked for about 12 weeks before the plants are discarded and replaced with new transplants.
Packaging and Shipping
The cucumbers are then taken into a cooled packing facility, where they can be shrink-wrapped and sorted by length, and then packaged and palletized. The wrapping and sorting is almost exclusively done by machine, reducing the large amounts of labour necessary for day to day operations. After the packaged product has been palletized, it is shipped by truck to a wholesale warehouse specializing in distribution to all kinds of grocery stores scattered across North America where it can be purchased and enjoyed by you, the consumer.