"My father started in 1970 with small scale traditional greenhouse cultivation of lettuce and tomato. When I joined the company, we renovated all the greenhouses, increased the height to 5 meters and removed all the separate sections so that we’d get one large greenhouse. In the 1990s, my father switched to vegetable trade and transport together with my brothers, and I took over the greenhouse cultivation, with only tomatoes. Nine years ago we got a disease in the greenhouse and it was either clearing everything and starting from scratch, or cultivating something else for a few years."
This says Belgian grower Jurgen Franco, who currently grows eggplants. "We originally thought about peppers, but soon the supply proved to be more than sufficient. A real gap in the market were eggplants, (laughing) at that time a fairly unknown crop to us. In total there were 12 hectares of eggplant in Belgium, adding our 3.5 ha meant a serious increase. But we took the gamble and we didn’t complain. Last year we even added 2 ha of greenhouse."
We have walked quite far into the greenhouse towards the pickers. Do eggplants like high temperatures? As long as there are people in the greenhouse, the top windows are open for ventilation and cooling. Jurgen: "If the picking stops in the afternoon, the greenhouse is closed and the temperature can easily rise above 30°C. When it drops below 16°C at night, we start the heating. In the past an eggplant was quite prickly, and picking it was not so pleasant. The spines have disappeared with the new varieties, but the plant - not the fruit - can cause allergic reactions. There is dust on the trunk and that is the culprit. So not everyone can work here."
From a small pot a large stem shoots upwards, from which again stalks grow upwards along wires that reach into the high ridge of the greenhouse.
Jurgen: "Eggplants are propagated in a small pot on the rootstock of a tomato because it is stronger than the eggplant itself. Our plants come from a specialized grower. We plant the whole greenhouse in mid-December in 2 days time. We start the harvesting in February and continue until mid-November. In between we clean up everything (laughing) the biggest job of the whole year.
Water and nutrients are given to the plants via a drip hose. An eggplant slowly grows in height, you cannot lower it like a tomato plant. One plant has 4 stems with lots of side shoots that you have to top off, because you want beautiful fruits. In the first months we harvest while sitting, then we end up high in the ridge on a forklift."
Eggplants are very tactile - they ask to be caressed - and photogenic fruits. That there are flowers, small, medium-sized and large eggplants hanging on the same plant is a treat for the photographer. But the sturdy looking fruit turns out to be very sensitive. Jurgen: "You must treat eggplants very carefully and certainly not press on them because later this will become a spot. If you want to know if an eggplant is fresh, don’t check their firmness, but just weigh them in your hand, they must have weight to them."
Bumblebees fly happily through the greenhouse to and from the flowers and their boxes.
Jurgen (laughing): "They do the delicate work here: the pollination. Without them we would not have any fruit. From the sticky traps between the rows we know what bad insects there are and which good little insects we have to use to fight them. Now we are lucky that the bad ones only eat the leaves and do not touch the fruit, so we can work very biologically, we do not spray here. Because it makes the plants grow better, we blow CO2 into the greenhouse. That CO2 comes from our CHP (combined heat and power) plant, with which we generate electricity to heat the greenhouse."
"We store part of it in the two large hot water tanks next to the greenhouse, we put the surplus of electricity on the grid. We work very ecologically and daily we are busy keeping the energy costs as low as possible."
From the field to the auction
While Jurgen takes us through the greenhouse, Nancy drives with the forklift back and forth from the picking area to the processing warehouse. Jurgen: "From February to November we cut off the biggest fruits every day and do that alternately: one day on one side of the plant, the other day on the other side. We do not have eggplants from mid November to mid February, an obvious choice because this way we do not have to provide lighting. Besides, in that period the Spanish eggplants are so cheap that we cannot compete with them."
In the shed the eggplants are sorted by weight and then packed in crates of 3 kg or in boxes of 5 kg. Jurgen: "Belgian retailers go for eggplants of 225 to 300 g per piece, the French prefer heavier ones. My eggplants are all sold through BelOrta. (laughs) That's why the big truck has BelOrta on it, we drive daily, sometimes twice a day. At the auction we go on the clock, so we never know the price in advance. We are with 4 growers at the auction and together we supply the whole Belgian market. If you buy an eggplant from a retailer, you have a 1 in 4 chance that it comes from here."
"What we have harvested and packaged today will be sold tomorrow morning before 7 am. Tomorrow evening or no later than the day after tomorrow, the eggplants will be in the shop. Eggplant cannot be stored because they cannot stand the cold. Once the fruit is off the plant, it does not mature any further, but an old eggplant that is cut off long before, becomes soft and spongy. A fruit with spots has been in cold storage or has been treated roughly."
Jurgen: "If I do not have a successor, this 5.5 ha is sufficient. I have 2 sons aged 19 and 17, but they are not really interested in the business yet. Do you need to have a horticulture training to do this? Partly yes, but you also must have a sense for trading. With everything regarding the CHP and the sale of electricity you also need to be an entrepreneur. "Large horticultural companies in the Netherlands have managers who are responsible for the cultivation or for the rest. If I would expand now, I also need to have all that. Our greenhouses are now made of hardened glass that, in case of hail or other calamities, will break into thousands of pieces, but it will keep hanging. This is for the safety of our employees."
"But if I were to expand, I would replace everything and put up a completely new greenhouse, the materials nowadays are so much lighter. Eggplant is on the rise, people are eating less meat and eggplant is being promoted as the 'real' vegetable steak, better than meat substitutes. So ... who knows."