Spain is – perhaps wrongly – still often seen as a country with middle-tech greenhouse horticulture: that is crops grown in the open ground, only protected by plastic stretched over wooden poles and the sun, however positive, as the most important growth medium. However, that is changing. In southern Spain more and more growers are switching towards professional vegetable cultivation in high-tech greenhouses.
Agrosol Export, of Roquetas de Mar, Almería, is one of those Spanish growers which has invested heavily in climate control, water utilisation and is introducing organic production to ensure year round harvest of quality produce. Founded in 2008, the company is owned by three families and run by eight members of the second generation. Ambitious and knowledgeable in production and marketing, they decided that their future lays in large scale, high tech greenhouses.
“Our fathers were growers and our families have been involved in agriculture in the area since the 1960s. We realized that if we could provide our clients with the same quality all year round we would be more competitive than other local Spanish producers and our traditional competitors in Tunisia and Morocco. We made significant investments in 2008 in high tech greenhouses and then again in 2012 when we installed heating pipes and CO2. At the moment we are very satisfied although we do have plans to expand further,” says José Ángel Amat, one of the directors.
Change the assortment
They have 105 hectares, including 32 hectares of state-of-the-art greenhouses, equipped with double layered plastic between which air is blown, to give a very good thermal insulation.
Initially they grew cherry, beef and snack tomatoes but one of their advantages, says Amat, is that they can change the assortment to respond to the market and client demand. “For the first four to five years 60% of our production was cherry tomatoes but over the last two years that has decreased as many other growers now grow cherry tomatoes. That changed the market. We want to be as profitable as possible per square metre so we switched over to mostly sweet peppers and cucumbers.” At the moment 50% of the greenhouses produce bell peppers, 45% long cucumbers and only 5% (8 hectares) is tomatoes.
Another change was the installation of pipe rail heating on 15 hectares in 2012. Various types of heaters warm the air in a further ten hectares. You’d think that heating pipes would be superfluous in southern Spain but after a visit to Mexico Amat says he realised their potential. “You can’t imagine the level of high technology they have there. They have pipe rail heating and I was very impressed with the quality of the fruits they were able to produce. Here the minimum temperature in winter can be 6-7ºC and at that temperature the yield of bell peppers and cucumbers decreases. And we have high humidity in the morning which has a big impact on quality.”
Therefore, in 2012 Agrosol Export commissioned the Bom Group to install a methane-fired 12 MW boiler, a heat storage tank of 3,000 m3, pipe rail heating on 15 hectares and a CO2 system in the greenhouses and at a cost of 2.5 million euro.
“We run the boiler, which also provides CO2, from the end of October until the spring. This year that was until the beginning of May. This has enabled us to achieve consistently high yield of very high quality. We will harvest until the beginning of August and we expect to reach a yield of 20 kg peppers/m2; 70% red and 30 % green,” says Amat. The cost price is around 0.80 to 0.90 euros per kilo, compared with 0.50 euros in the hot air heated greenhouses where the yield is somewhat lower at 7-8 kg/m2.
The benefit gained from the pipe rail heating means they are gradually installing more in the current greenhouses and next summer they plan to build a new 10 hectares high tech greenhouse. “If that goes well then in about three years we may build again,” adds Amat. “We believe that investing in technology is the only way to be better than our competitors.” The new house will also have a double plastic covering but they will aim to allow in more light and it will be higher, at 7 metres, to improve air circulation.
Their success can also be attributed to their marketing and relationships with their clients. Most growers in the area sell through a cooperative whereas Agrosol knows its clients directly. Its main customers are UK retailers, although it does sell snack cherry tomatoes under the brand ‘Cherrytos and co’ aimed at children. These are mainly sold through Faborit, a trendy outlet in Madrid, or via e-commerce. “We want to invest a little more in the snack tomato business because we think this is a good way to gain more profit,” says Amat.
Of course they have to fulfil individual audits for their clients such as Nurture for Tesco, and comply with codes of conducts such as GlobalGap and Leaf Marque but that is part of the commitment required for these partnerships.
Trend to organic
They are also increasing the volume of organic production. “Nearly 10% of crops are organic and we are planning to increase this in future to meet the growing trend.”
In the remaining houses they use an IPM program and biological pest control suggested by their supplier Koppert Biological Systems. They have been implementing this since they started Agrosol Export and their father’s used it before that.
This allows them to minimise most of the common diseases and keep well below the mandatory maximum residue levels. “We have a highly developed pest control system which allows us to avoid a lot of diseases,” says Amat. They currently include a range of natural predators including Amblyseius swirski, macrolophus, orius and Amblyseius californicus. “We do a control at the propagator and we make continual checks at all stages of the crop to check for disease and to ensure the natural predators are well established.”
Over the last few years they have been gradually switching to a cocopeat substrate. Now the majority of crops are grown in this, just some in rockwool. “We separate the cocopeat from the plastic bag and recycle them both: the cocopeat is composted and we are building a plant to convert the plastic bags into biodiesel for our own use.” It should be completed within six months.
“Our strategy now is to progressively convert all our greenhouses to high-tech, in a sustainable way. This is the only way to produce high quality fruits year round and be profitable per square metre,” the grower concludes. “It is a major investment but the results are good. Our clients are very happy with our service and our ability to offer quality products during the difficult winter times.”
Significant investment in high tech greenhouses, including pipe rail heating, by large Spanish grower, Agrosol Export, is allowing it to produce consistently high quality peppers and cucumbers year round. The majority are sold to UK retailers. It has the flexibility to switch crops to market demand and is gradually cultivating more and more organic produce.
Text: Helen Armstrong. Images: Agrosol Export