The next step towards autonomous growing: real-time connection to the greenhouse with the LetsGrow Livestream

The times we live in bring a lot of challenges. Viruses and pest pressure are standard features in our current vocabulary these days. Physically meeting each other or entering greenhouses is becoming more and more the exception. To make entering greenhouses possible, LetsGrow.com launched the LetsGrow Livestream on 11 November 2021 using Google Glass. Real-time viewing and listening in the greenhouse and a direct link to your cultivation data on one convenient dashboard.

Digital business operations

Can you hear me or am I on mute?”, Do you also see what I see?, Turn the camera? Like this?” A situation that is familiar to us all. Nowadays we Zoom and Facetime a lot with each other. The coronavirus ensures that physical visits worldwide can still be difficult sometimes. In addition, various plant viruses also play a major role in the daily operations of many growers worldwide. The world has started to think and communicate more and more digitally. But however you look at it, there is often noise on the line. You quickly talk past each other anyway. How nice would it be if you could see and hear exactly the same as the person on the other end? In control from a distance with a live stream from the greenhouse. Through a specially designed Google Glass from LetsGrow.com for example. With sharp images and clear sound, it is possible to communicate with each other and to see the crop in detail, without being physically present. All you need is the LetsGrow Livestream.

Successful test phase at Porta Nova

Unlike a vegetable crop such as tomato, there is no virus in rose cultivation which makes entering the greenhouse that difficult. With protective clothing, a crop advisor, for example, can simply visit Porta Nova’s greenhouse. Despite this fact, Porta Nova was enthusiastic about the LetsGrow Livestream. Glenn van der Burg, cultivation manager at Porta Nova, explains: “With us, it is reasonably easy to enter the greenhouse without too much risk, but we still wanted to experience the LetsGrow Livestream. We certainly see the efficiency of this application and believe it can be a valuable addition to your data strategy, in any crop. Of course, we’ve all experienced having to look up digital alternatives since the corona days. This is a great add to that, especially since you’re really looking at the same thing together and, as a glasses wearer, you have your hands free.”

Glenn van der Burg van Porta Nova tests the glasses in practice.

Remote training and advice with the LetsGrow Livestream by HortiTech

HortiTech is also enthusiastic about the LetsGrow Livestream. HortiTech specializes in research, training, and advice for growers and organizations in agriculture worldwide. Pim van Adrichem of HortiTech is very enthusiastic about this development. He says: “We provide a lot of training, particularly in North America. Normally, you travel there very often. Besides the fact that this has been very inconvenient recently, flying is also costly for both our wallet and the environment. The LetsGrow.com Livestream can take over a number of these contact moments and make maintaining contact more accessible. A cooperation with a grower is often a process of several months or years. This allows you, for example, to replace one or two flights back and forth, but also to have more frequent contact with the grower in training because the threshold is a lot lower. Through the platform, it is easy to schedule a Livestream appointment with the grower on location. It is a matter of “plug-and-play.”

LetsGrow Livestream can be used during assessments

HortiTech also often carries out an assessment after a training program. The LetsGrow Livestream also offers a solution for this. Pim explains: “The glasses allow us to look directly at what the trainee grower is doing, without it feeling as if we are looking over his shoulder. This gives a much more realistic view of the situation than if we were to physically accompany that person. In the end, this is only beneficial for both parties”.

The LetsGrow Livestream is available worldwide. Would you like more information? Then contact us at mailto:info@letsgrow.com or fill in our contact form.

Pim van Adrichem from HortiTech observes the greenhouse from a distance.

Let’s Talk: Winny van Heijningen & Heleen Lugt | young professionals of LetsGrow.com

A while ago we looked back on 20 years of LetsGrow.com with Leon and Edwin, LetsGrowers from the very beginning. How did the company start and how did they experience it? Did you miss that article? Then click here.

But in addition to LetsGrowers from the very beginning, there are also plenty of colleagues at LetsGrow.com who are newer to the club. The company has grown a lot in recent years and a lot of young talent has started there. And despite the fact that they have only been with us for a short time, these colleagues also stand out in their own way in their function, development and innovation capacity and show that development in your career at LetsGrow.com is possible for everyone. Two good examples of this are our Sales Manager Winny and Data Driven Growing Specialist Heleen.

Winny walked into the gates of our office in Vlaardingen three years ago. With a degree in Sociology, but daughter of a grower, horticulture is in her blood. So after her studies she started working as a team leader at the renowned grower Florensis. After a while, her interest in horticulture began to make a switch to the software side of the industry. And then one plus one suddenly became two. A vacancy on the website, a call with Managing Director Peter Hendriks and so it happened. Started as an Account Manager, but from April 1 this year, she has grown into the role of Sales Manager.

Heleen graduated in February 2020 from her Biology study at Wageningen University & Research (WUR). For her graduation project she studied the behavior of honeybees. Like Winny, this is not really a horticulture-related study, but if you have honeybees in mind, then you quickly end up with bumblebees. And let that be one of the many hard workers in our industry. “I was looking for a job where the combination between biology and engineering came out strong. Eventually, I read a story on LinkedIn about Plant Empowerment and found myself at LetsGrow.com. The position of Data Driven Growing Specialist turned out to be a hit”.

Teamwork makes the dreamwork

Winny explains what invited her to apply: “What struck me most about LetsGrow.com was that you are given a lot of responsibility right from the start. You can create opportunities yourself and also take them. This was promised during the job interviews, but proved to be true. I come from an entrepreneurial family, so that mentality suits me very well. I can really express myself here”. Heleen also agrees: “All my colleagues have a great research drive, so we are constantly developing new things together or improving our work. I really like that about my job. The organization is not layered and a lot is developed without too much fuss. Developments go quickly because we have many specialists in the house, but especially because people are given the space to try out new things straight away. Teamwork really makes the dreamwork”.

Winny is the contact person for various growers around the world on behalf of LetsGrow.com. Although she often puts her focus on countries such as Australia and Japan. “I am the early bird of the team, so because of the time difference with The Netherlands, these countries are perfect for me. In this way, we distribute our clients within the team according to everyone’s field of interest.” Heleen, laughing, notes that she then has to talk to her team members about that distribution again.”I’m actually a morning person too, but still have a lot to do with customers in the region of North-America”.  In the end Heleen is very happy with the cases she is presented with as a Data Driven Growing Specialist. She explains: “I always do get excited about new ideas. Trying new things and getting the space for this. In the training courses that we provide to growers, this is even very important. Every situation is different and there is always room for improvement. You can put your own knowledge, and that of your colleagues, to good use because everyone has their own expertise. In this way we can offer our customers really good guidance so that they can grow into real Data Driven Growers”.

Making horticulture more sustainable with data

The field within data in horticulture has changed a lot in recent years. Winny also agrees: “My job is not the same as when I started. Three years ago, many growers still found data a bit scary and overwhelming, but now almost every large or small grower knows that they want to do something with it. How they can do this is often a question we are asked. At LetsGrow.com we strive to ensure that every grower does something with data or recognizes the added value of data. Whether it’s comparing data or a full Data Driven Growing strategy. For example, I am very proud of my first implementation project with a large client from Asia with multiple locations. I started with them a number of years ago by reading and comparing their data in our platform MyLetsGrow, but together they are now making the transition to a full Data Driven Growing cultivation strategy and Heleen’s team is helping them with this in the form of training courses.”

Heleen adds: “At LetsGrow.com a lot of attention and focus goes to creating a more sustainable horticulture worldwide. I really like that about the company. Our services enable us, our growers, but also crop advisors to gain more insight into what is happening in a greenhouse. By using that data intelligently, you can make smarter use of your resources and therefore grow more sustainably. I think it’s super cool to be part of a company that is at the forefront in the field of data in horticulture and has more than twenty years’ experience. LetsGrow.com is developing all the time”. Winny adds: “I was colleague number 13 and now we are already heading towards 50. A team of young talents with a certain speed and enthusiasm, combined with more experienced employees who provide a certain stability and security”. “And also a good mix between men and women!”,  adds Heleen. And that is certainly true. At LetsGrow.com almost half of the organization consists of women.

Winny visiting customers in Mexico.

It’s a man’s world

It is often said that the horticultural industry and real man’s world, but this is not how these ladies experience it. “At first I did not notice that many men work in this industry, because at LetsGrow.com the contrast is hardly noticeable. Only when others from my network mentioned it, I did start to see it differently”, is what Heleen explains. But both Winny and Heleen don’t really give it much attention. Winny says: “Men and women together provide a certain dynamic in the team, although I am of course a little bit proud of all the ladies in this industry”. So we can say: ‘It’s a man’s world, but it would be nothing without a woman or a girl. At LetsGrow.com it certainly is!

Heleen while doing crop registrations, together with colleague Ilva.

Let’s Talk: Edwin and Leon | LetsGrowers from the very beginning

Twenty years ago, in 2001, LetsGrow.com arose from an initiative of Wageningen University & Research (WUR). A company that started with opening up models of the WUR, later compared various cultivation data and is now known for Data Driven Growing. In the past twenty years the company has developed a great deal. Both in service and in staff. The LetsGrow.com team now consists of 40 people. Many new colleagues have joined in recent years, but a number of colleagues from the very beginning are still working for the company.

We spoke with Edwin and Leon. Both Software Developers at LetsGrow.com and employed since the beginning. They were both involved in the creation of the company. And why it was a good idea to involve them in the process soon became apparent during one of the first consultations with the WUR. At the time, they spoke about feeding their crop models with data from growers and creating a market for them. The ‘how or what’ then had to be discussed. In the end it was Leon who drew the conclusion: “There is only one way we can get this right, and that is through the Internet”. At that time Leon already had some experience with greenhouses and crop models. After his studies at the WUR with this specialization, he worked there for a while as a researcher. Opening up models via the internet was a possible next step for him. However, it turned out to be a very innovative idea for the time. In 2001, access to the Internet was not yet as developed as we are accustomed to and there was also no experience with it. We started by building a web server on the desk in order to be able to set up a page. Put your shoulders to it and just do it. We succeeded in building the page, but LetsGrow.com turned out to be far ahead of its time.

This was also noticeable among growers at the time. Edwin describes: “They didn’t always have an internet connection in the greenhouse and besides that, growers were also hesitant. Nobody knew anything like the Cloud and Big Data at that time. Growers were afraid that their data would be put on the street”. It took some time before the majority of growers dared to work with LetsGrow.com. Edwin continues: “I jokingly told a grower at the time that if I wanted his data, the best thing I could do would be to steal his PC. This finally gave him confidence in the safety of the data”.

Data, data and yet more data

Today LetsGrow.com still pays a lot of attention to securing the data of its clients. Data security is of paramount importance and the company handles this with care. It is not without reason that LetsGrow.com has the ISO27001 certificate, which means that the data of all growers is stored in the safest possible way.

The data that was collected and analyzed in the early years was initially not as complex as the data that we now know. It started mainly with 24-hour data, initially for the purpose of controlling flowering pot plants. Later, in 2003, the first yield prediction for a tomato crop was made. The Managing Director of LetsGrow.com at that time asked whether real-time data could also be compared. Leon’s response to this was doubtful, he explains: “I was very curious about how this would work and did not expect much demand for this. In hindsight, that turned out to be unjustified. For years, we have been doing a lot of comparing of real-time data of different growers and locations for growers, especially in the Netherlands. This is still widely used, but we do see a big shift in demand for our complete platform with data visualization and analysis so that people can grow in a data-driven way.

Moving towards a complete platform

In 2005 the first step was taken towards the platform as it is known today as MyLetsGrow. In that year the question came from an energy cluster whether LetsGrow.com could unlock and visualize the weather forecast and other data. At that point, we started using the models in a yet-to-be-built platform.

It is often said that LetsGrow.com has been able to cleverly sail along on the technological innovations worldwide. Leon agrees: “When we just started, we were new to the market. Today, several companies, also in the horticultural industry, are working with big data. Thanks to the experience we have gained, many things are developing rapidly for us. Particularly because we have the basics at hand and do not have to develop from scratch. In addition, LetsGrow.com really focuses on analyzing and visualizing data from various sensors, cameras and machines and does not produce any sensors itself. That makes us agile. For example, if a grower wants to connect 150 sensors from different suppliers, it will take us a few days at most, but we will certainly succeed without any problems.”

Edwin adds: “Besides having years of experience, it is also important to see opportunities and dare to seize them. All Managing Directors of LetsGrow.com shared this vision, which has also helped us over the past twenty years. By sometimes just doing and experiencing, we have raised the level of knowledge and specialism to the current level, something we can all be proud of.

The growth of LetsGrow.com with experienced and young talent

The LetsGrow.com team has expanded in recent years to include a large team of Developers, but there is also a Customer Support and Sales team. Edwin and Leon are very happy with this. “We used to do a lot together. The development, but also the customer support, answering the phone and so on. We have got it all sorted out now”, says Leon, laughing.

The growth of LetsGrow.com is also due to the hiring of many young talents and students. Leon and Edwin both see this as an enrichment of the team. Edwin proudly says: “The young talents keep us up-to-date. Where we think that something can sometimes be complicated, they have often already started. The mix of young talent and experienced staff is a must in order to continue to grow”. LetsGrow.com therefore often works with interns who might be able to stay on after graduating. Leon explains, “I often warn them in jest and say; Watch out! You won’t get out of here!”.

Edwin and Leon see working with students as a two-way street. They explain: “We help them, but also let them fully participate in the team and divide all projects equally. At LetsGrow.com a lot of attention is paid to good supervision of students and a pleasant working atmosphere. As a result, we notice that we are seen as an interesting party by students”. Leon adds: “Of course you hope that students like to stay with us, but if they decide to broaden their horizon elsewhere, then we want them to have a good basis for the future. We pay a lot of attention to this”.

Leon and Edwin have in any case stuck with LetsGrow.com. Leon from the start. He has now grown into a Senior Developer and manages Developers and students in his team. Edwin took a break and started his own successful company. A number of years later, Edwin started working at LetsGrow.com again. Initially for a number of hours per week and for a period of one year. This quickly became several years and eventually he was asked if he would like to return. With his previous experiences at LetsGrow.com in mind, the choice was quickly made. Edwin came back to base and is still there.

They are both still enjoying themselves. Leon explains enthusiastically: “The mix of young and old, different nationalities and gender is really our strength. We are a diverse club with a dynamic atmosphere. We are good at our jobs and if it were up to us, LetsGrow.com would continue at this pace for at least another twenty years!”.

The sense and nonsense of Artificial Intelligence – Ton van Dijk

Did you know that a modern-day cell phone is a million times more powerful than all the computers combined that made the moon landing possible in the 1960s? With that thought in mind, it’s clear that a lot has changed when it comes to cell phones and computers. In fact, a cell phone today is packed with Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI refers to the application of human intelligence in machines. Machines are programmed to think like humans, mimic their actions and solve problems. AI is a technology that is growing very rapidly due to the development of fast and very powerful computers. A good example of AI is, for example, Google Maps. With Google Maps, your phone knows exactly which route to take. Better than you ever could. This is because your phone can process more data at once than you can. 

AI is a term that is also used frequently in the horticultural industry. Because of this, one sometimes gets the impression that AI is going to solve all future problems in the industry. Think, for example, of the shortage of employees and specifically trained growers. Will AI then ensure that all work can be taken over by robots in the future? A dream for some, but also a horror scenario for many. Is AI going to replace people? The answer to that, in our opinion, is; no.

At LetsGrow.com we believe that AI helps to make better decisions, but it is certainly not going to replace a grower or crop advisor. AI does bring the grower and crop advisor possibilities to control larger areas from a distance. Expert Knowledge combined with Artificial Intelligence is the golden combination as far as we are concerned. But more about that later.

So how exactly does AI work?

It is often thought that as much data as possible from different growers together is the recipe for developing an algorithm.  An algorithm that might make automatic cultivation possible. However, this is not the right way. Firstly, because data of growers always remains the property of the grower and cannot be used in this way. Secondly, because using data from the past to develop algorithms and predictions for the future, does not ensure optimization. In that situation, one takes any “mistakes” from the past into the development. AI makes it possible to perform tasks faster and sometimes better than people, but only if the algorithm is built properly.

A good example of a good working AI-related innovation is Philips’ Intellivue Guardian Solution, which is used in hospitals. This AI-related innovation is a smart system that, through the right sensors, measures the heart activity and respiration rate of patients. Smart and carefully constructed algorithms predict when a patient might develop complications and then preventively call in a medical team. This preventive intervention reduces patient complications, ultimately reducing ICU admissions and thus reducing the pressure on doctors and nurses who can focus on patients who need extra care rather than routine tasks such as standard checkups. This system is a good example of how AI can provide optimization.

So what about in horticulture?

Over the past 50 years, much scientific research has been done on plant physiology and physics in and around a greenhouse. As a result of this research, we now know how a plant grows and how to make the plant as comfortable as possible. Optimum conditions ultimately ensure a high-quality crop and a higher yield. Growers and cultivation advisors use their own experiences and calculations for this, which we also call Expert Intelligence (EI). Systems can already be set up to issue alerts to the grower when needed. This already ensures that growers can focus on more strategic matters. LetsGrow.com contributes to this by visualizing and analyzing the grower’s data. These results make it possible to cultivate in a data-driven way. But it can be even more extensive.

When the we combine outcomes from EI with other external data, such as weather forecasts, for example, it is possible to use those data to create an optimal situation for the plant. For example, it is possible to use an optimally constructed Machine Learning model to predict when plant stress may occur in the plant. A grower can therefore use this information to adjust the cultivation strategy to prevent this plant stress from actually occurring. In this way, the combination of data, EI and AI helps to provide predictive insight to the grower. This gives the grower the possibility to create an even more stable and optimal crop. A situation with only winners if you ask us!

There are so many more possibilities with AI. Think of automatic image recognition by placing cameras in the greenhouse. Together with partner Gearbox, LetsGrow.com is already making this possible. In addition, LetsGrow.com also works together with HortiKey and their Plantalyzer. This is a robot that rides along the pipe-rail and takes pictures of the crop. The advanced AI in this robot is able to recognize the number of fruits or flowers in the path or to analyze growth. This recognition makes it possible for LetsGrow.com to make more accurate yield predictions and visualize them in our dashboard MyLetsGrow. A grower can use this data to work in a more targeted way by, for example, using the sales of his product correctly and selling at higher margins.

So is AI now taking over from humans?

No. At all times it is important that the combination between computer and human remains. A combination of Expert Intelligence and Artificial Intelligence. Humans determine the strategy at the start of the process based on the commercial requirements for that year. In addition, humans must always be able to intervene in case of calamities. AI therefore certainly does not make people superfluous, but it does enable people to manage and optimize larger areas without being too preoccupied with peripheral issues.

Data Driven Growing: “But that’s what I’ve been doing, right?” – Ton van Dijk

In recent years, there has been an increase in written articles about Data Driven Growing. I talk about this a lot with growers from all over the world. A common comment I get is: “But that’s what I’ve been doing, right? How is Data Driven Growing going to help me?” And of course they have a point. Plenty decisions are already being made based on data. Yet, there are also ample opportunities for improvement at many companies.

Data Driven Growing (DDG) came into existence with the advent of climate computers in the 1970s, namely by basing decisions on quality information and measurements. That’s still the case today. Throughout the years very nice systems have been made that enable you as a grower, together with the crop consultant, to set exactly what you want to achieve based on measurements related to temperature, RH, CO2, measuring boxes at multiple heights, plant temperature, PAR, etc. You’ll lose track if you’re not careful!

We regularly receive many questions about this. If you take a lot of measurements, are you growing in a data-driven way, and do you actually make the best decisions? Are you making those decisions based on facts or feelings? And should you analyze your data once a year, or would it be optimal to analyze it every month, every week or even in real-time? Are you, a human, still needed in the greenhouse or do you simply view the data from your computer screen? And if something goes wrong in the greenhouse, do you adjust your settings or is it also possible to anticipate what will happen so you may prevent it? The answer to many of these questions is still that it simply involves your common sense and feelings.

Growing based on data

Herein lies the big difference between Data Driven Growing and growing based on data. These are two separate standpoints. I regularly speak to business owners who claim that good growers walk in the greenhouse and don’t sit behind a computer screen. It is true that it is not desirable for growers to be constantly behind the computer changing settings. That would mean that you would be working reactively and you would actually fall behind. Your cultivation is then based on data. However, if you visualize, analyze and use all available data in a good way, a grower behind the computer screen can draw sharper conclusions. Then you can truly be data driven. It is important, however, that the physiological and physical knowledge is up to standard so that data can be interpreted correctly. This is not only important for the grower himself, but also for the crop consultant and other colleagues.

Plant Empowerment

A good tool for this knowledge is the physiology of Plant Empowerment. A book has been written about this, namely: ‘Plant Empowerment, the basic principles’ which is published by LetsGrow.com. The book very clearly describes the plant physiological and physical processes in the greenhouse and creates a common way of communication. An example of this is the discussion about generative or vegetative control of the crop. At Plant Empowerment we talk about the Ratio Temperature Radiation (RTR). When you have good control of the RTR, there is an optimal plant balance. A discussion about generative or vegetative control of the crop is then superfluous. The RTR is a calculable number that you can use to work out an optimal cultivation strategy. The use of a principle from this physiology ensures that one can deal proactively with data. More of these examples are described in our white papers. The book Plant Empowerment has also become standard reading material for horticulture related schools and universities in the Netherlands and abroad. We are of course very proud of this!

Data Driven Growing

In data driven growing the grower becomes increasingly skilled in the strategic use of already available data. Within LetsGrow.com we always use the Gartner chart for this.

the Gartner chart

If you collect, store, visualize and analyses data in a good and unambiguous way, this can lead to interesting insights. Our advice is always to start with the proper registration of your data. Are you not yet using crop settings or taking structural photos with cameras hanging throughout the greenhouse? Then start doing so. Combining photos with data is a golden combination for analysis. In addition, it is also important that you, as a grower, delve into the explanatory and predictive models that are available. By knowing what is going to happen, steering is still possible before it happens. You can make big steps towards an optimal situation in the greenhouse with small interventions, often without extra investment. That is what I call the power of data! Growers who go for it will be the winners in the future. And if you need help with this, just give me a call.