As part of a joint venture with Haofeng Food Group, in 2018 the Chinese state-owned building materials company China National Building Material (CNBM) set up its first 7 ha high-tech greenhouse for tomatoes in the village of Linyi in the Chinese province of Shandong. Since then it has built two more high-tech greenhouses in the same province, bringing the total to 33.2 ha. Over the next five years, the company aims to develop a thousand similar high-tech facilities throughout China.

One of the Chinese government’s strategic aims is to modernize the country’s agricultural and horticultural sector. A shift to high-tech greenhouses can support this strategy in terms of both production volumes and food safety. In view of its existing business activities in cement, lightweight building materials, glass and new energies, CNBM is well placed to support this transition.

From traditional to high-tech

In 2016, the organization created a separate division to focus on horticulture. As the Vice Director of Horticulture, Jason Sha has been closely involved in the process to explore and develop the greenhouse market. “In China, although industries such as manufacturing, security and IT are very highly advanced, our agricultural and horticultural sector is still very traditional,” comments Sha.
“As a state-owned company, we have a societal responsibility to take care of people’s needs. Our focus so far has been on construction materials such as cement and glass to build houses for people to live in. Efficient high-tech greenhouses are the right direction for Chinese horticulture, so it’s a logical step for us to also develop greenhouses to provide people with safe and healthy food to eat. As a successful international engineering company, we are focused on making use of innovative techniques and automation to solve problems – in this case food safety, quality and uniformity – as efficiently as possible.”

Joint venture

Sha and his team identified a suitable opportunity for a joint venture together with Haofeng Food Group (HFG). The company is one of the key leading enterprises in agricultural industrialization in the Shandong province and is a major supplier of fresh lettuce and other salad vegetables to customers such as KFC and McDonalds.
Both companies decided to build their first high-tech greenhouse in the village of Linyi. It is located in the Dezhou district of Shandong province, where the local government has strong ambitions to become a hub for modern horticulture. The village is situated close to the east coast of China, roughly halfway between Shanghai and Beijing, in fairly flat countryside. “The summers can be very hot, with daytime temperatures of more than 38ºC and night-time temperatures of 28-30ºC including high humidity,” he explains. “The winters can be cold, with night-time temperatures of below freezing and it can even snow sometimes.”

Varieties aligned market needs

The 7 ha high-tech greenhouse in Linyi was constructed by Dalsem, which representatives from both companies in the joint venture had met during a visit to the Netherlands in the orientation phase of the project. Work was completed in 2018.
The greenhouse now produces five varieties of tomato crops grown in cocopeat for nine months a year, with a break from June until the end of August due to the heat. This results in annual yields of roughly 50 to 60 kg per m². “We initially planted more than 30 varieties – all different kinds and sizes, from large to cocktail/cherry – to test which ones were best aligned with client requirements and market needs,” adds Sha. “We have since signed a major deal with Alibaba, which has agreed to co-brand our Greer tomatoes with its own label, Gumma, thanks to our quality and our approach.”
Other tomatoes from the greenhouse are sold to big-name food service customers, luxury hotels and high-end supermarkets as far away as Beijing.

Reducing the energy costs

The greenhouse has two boilers, top irrigation and a heat storage tank for any excess heat. “The cost of gas and electricity is high in China, so we are continuously using our resources and technical knowledge to reduce energy costs,” he continues. “Our solar energy expertise can be used to power the high-tech greenhouses, for instance. And we’re exploring practical ways to reclaim waste heat and CO2 emitted by our own factories and re-use it for the plants in our greenhouses. For example, we’ve roughly calculated that one cement factory could be enough to supply ten 7 ha greenhouses for a year, so that could be an excellent way to reduce the operating costs.”

Process computer

All the greenhouse processes such as temperature settings and CO2 levels are automatically regulated by a Hoogendoorn Growth Management process computer. The local climate is relatively dry, so an automated misting installation has been installed based on sensors in the greenhouse that continuously monitor the humidity level. The computer also takes care of the irrigation.
The greenhouse is divided into several different sections with a different variety grown in each one, which means different recipes in order to maintain the optimum EC/pH in each section. The units have been specially equipped with sensors that constantly measure the fertilizers, set points and water of the various varieties. No artificial lighting is necessary since the amount of natural light is sufficient.

Labour management system

In addition to the process computer, a labour management system has been installed which monitors all the operational processes in the greenhouse: from pruning and twisting to harvesting and packing into crates. This not only enables the company to keep track of what each of the 60 employees is doing in real time, but more importantly it can combine the data with historical statistics to forecast the daily yields. Although the majority of the employees are locals with little to no previous experience of working in a greenhouse, they have been very quick to get to grips with both the climate computer and the labour management system.
“We have a very close and open relationship with Hoogendoorn and they have provided us with lots of good service, helping us to solve problems immediately if we ran into any difficulties,” comments Sha. “We also received lots of training, both in China and the Netherlands, so we could learn how to use the computer systems. Our technical teams from this first project can now share their knowledge and experience in our other greenhouses in the future to train other teams and help them adapt the settings to the local climate in line with each crop’s needs.”

Future plans

CNBM has since finished two more high-tech greenhouses in China, one of 7 ha and one of 25 ha. “And we’re currently building a further 65 ha, which will be finished by the end of this year,” he states.
“That’s the biggest amount in China so far, but still very small for the Chinese market – we have a huge population to feed! That’s why our goal is to build a thousand high-tech greenhouses in the next five years, including perhaps in Guangzhou province to serve Hong Kong and Macau, or in the north where the climate is very favourable with lots of sunlight. But we also have to think carefully about the return on investment, because the logistics can be challenging. Sites located further away from main cities may lead to higher transportation costs.”
“Now that China is out of lockdown again, we’re able to move forward with these projects quickly. As an innovative international engineering company, we are keen to combine our expertise with other international companies who are experts in their field. That way, we can contribute to modernizing Chinese agriculture and horticulture in line with what the market needs, now and in the future,” Sha concludes.

Text: Lynn Radford, images: Wierd Vonk