Inside the world of cucumbers — Field-grown and greenhouse-grown
Is there a difference between greenhouse-grown and field-grown cucumbers? If so, can consumers pick up on that difference?
Well, yes and no.
Yes, greenhouse and field cukes are different from one another. No, many consumers don’t notice the difference when they’re shopping – nor do many of them care.
The Packer’s 2020 Fresh Trends survey revealed that 38% of consumers who bought cucumbers purchased field-grown product, compared to 18% who bought greenhouse cucumbers. Forty-four percent stated they had no preference between the two.
Looking at dollar sales, green – or field – cucumbers accounted for 66.2% of the category for the 52 weeks ending Dec. 5, with sales up 15.2% from 2019, according to consulting firm Category Partners, which cited Nielsen data.
English cucumbers had a 19.9% dollar share with sales up 14.2% from last year.
“In the greenhouse, we grow an entirely different type of cucumber,” said Bob Hochmuth, a regional specialized extension agent and assistant director at the North Florida Research and Education Center, Suwannee Valley.
Field cucumbers, often known as slicers, contain seeds and tend to have a thicker skin than their greenhouse counterparts. Consumers peel off that skin before they eat the fruit. (Yes, though they’re classified as a vegetable for commercial purposes, a cucumber botanically is considered some fruit.)
On the other hand, greenhouse or English cucumbers typically are seedless and have a very thin, edible skin.
“The skin is so thin that it is prone to dehydration, so they are typically shrink-wrapped,” Hochmuth said.
There are many varieties of greenhouse and field cucumbers, Hochmuth said.
Slicing cucumbers usually are not grown in greenhouses because they don’t command enough value to justify the added expense.
Greenhouse cucumbers are about 12 inches long, while field cukes are about half that size but larger in diameter.
He estimated that 99% of slicing cucumbers are field grown.
Since greenhouse cucumbers are seedless, thin skinned and often promoted as burpless, they are considered more of a premium cucumber, Hochmuth said.
The growing process
Field cucumbers are much easier to grow than those produced in greenhouses.
“Typically, field cucumbers are grown on plastic mulch with drip irrigation,” he said. “They would basically lie flat on the ground.”
In greenhouses, high-wire cucumber growing is the mainstay today, said Chris Veillon, chief marketing officer at Leamington, Ontario-based Pure Hothouse Foods.
That process maximizes production per square foot. Greenhouses typically grow about 57 pounds per 11 square feet, while field production is about 5.2 pounds, Veillon said.
Growing techniques have evolved as greenhouse technology becomes more efficient and new trellising and pruning systems are implemented to increase productivity, said Joanna Jaramillo, marketing specialist for Amado, Ariz.-based Wholesum.
“New techniques can also affect plant longevity,” she said.
A plant that in the past produced eight to nine weeks of harvest now produces 14 weeks.
Improvement in seed varieties also is producing a greater yield per plant, Veillon said.
A look at labor
Greenhouse cucumbers require very intensive hand labor.
Over the past eight to 10 years, the availability of greenhouse-grown cucumbers has spiked because of demand for consistency in supply, Veillon said.
“From a grower standpoint, cucumbers are a quick crop to produce, sometimes with product ready to be picked within 30 days of planting,” he said.
One of the biggest costs of greenhouse cucumber production today is the labor to pick them because of how fast plants can produce the fruit.
“As a continuous crop, the plants need to be picked daily due to crop density,” Veillon said. They can be grown year-round in greenhouses, unlike field product, and their size usually is consistent.
Another growing method
Miami-based Continental Fresh LLC sources cucumbers from Honduras that are grown yet another way – in fields but on poles – said Robert Cabili, vice president of sales.
Florida grows more cucumbers than any other state in the U.S., but they typically are grown on the ground because pole growing is labor intensive, adding to a grower’s costs, Cabili said. Labor is cheaper in Honduras.
Pole-grown cukes tend to be slightly straighter and have a darker green color than those grown on the ground, he said.
Most cucumbers sold in the U.S. are imported from Mexico or offshore locations, like Honduras, Cabili said.
“Mexico brings in a ton of cucumbers,” he said, noting many of those are grown in shade houses.
Most consumers are not entirely aware of the difference between greenhouse-grown and field-grown cucumbers, Jaramillo said.
“What is evident, however is the quality, consistency and overall experience with greenhouse product,” she said. Besides having no seeds and thin skin, European cucumbers are mild in flavor.
“This makes the product very attractive and convenient for consumers,” Jaramillo said.
Small but mighty
More recently, mini – or Persian – cucumbers have been gaining popularity, and commercial production has increased.
Mini cucumbers had a 13.2% dollar share of the category for the 52 weeks ending Dec. 5, with sales up 28.7% over 2019.
“The smaller size is great for healthy and convenient snacking and an overall better experience for the consumer,” Jaramillo said.
Mini cucumbers are smaller than full-size greenhouse cucumbers, and they do not dehydrate as quickly, so they don’t need shrink wrap, Hochmuth added.