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NFT cultivation system boosts Lebanese lettuce production

The use of the nutrient film technique (NFT) to produce lollo rossa, lollo bionda, little gem and batavia lettuce in a hydroponic channel system is completely new for Lebanese growers. 

With Rijk Zwaan’s help, Robinson Agri – a supplier to the horticultural sector based in Byblos, Lebanon, and Rijk Zwaan’s exclusive distributor in the country since 2000 – recently introduced this concept. The first five projects with growers are already under way, explains Director Nadine El Khoury.

“We’ve always been a pioneer within our industry, so being the first company to launch professional NFT projects in Lebanon fits with that tradition. We’ve been supplying top-quality products to horticultural companies since 1971, and we’ve continuously expanded our range of activities over time. 

Today, we offer turnkey projects: greenhouses and greenhouse systems, irrigation systems, crop protection and also young plants and hybrid seed. Thanks to Rijk Zwaan’s support, we have been able to introduce high-quality varieties like mini cucumbers, new lettuce and pepper rootstocks in Lebanon."

More lettuce types thanks to ‘new cuisine’
“This region is a very big sales market for fresh produce. Lebanese consumers eat a lot of salads, with any meal of the day. The most popular lettuce type is traditionally cos, but due to the rise of the ‘new cuisine’ here people are becoming increasingly interested in other, higher-end lettuce types such as lollo rossa and little gem. 

Fast-food chains such as McDonald’s and Burger King are playing a role in this too. The opportunities are huge. Since 2007 we’ve seen a growing demand for all kinds of lettuce types, including other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.”

Demos in trial locations
“NFT enables us to respond to that rising demand. Two years ago our agricultural engineers joined some Rijk Zwaan employees on an NFT study trip to Malaysia. They came back filled with such enthusiasm that we set up demos at two of our trial locations last year. 

The specialists from Rijk Zwaan helped us, not only with the choice of the right lettuce varieties but also with technical issues such as fertilisation. They even provided the right packaging, so that we can answer all the growers’ questions. It’s thanks to their expertise that we’ve been able to launch NFT here. The system costs are considerably higher, of course, but that’s outweighed by the benefits.”

Higher yield, longer shelf life
“For example, the lettuce yield with NFT is four to five times higher. Soil-grown lettuce is harvested four times per year, with each harvest producing around 4,000 plants per 1,000m2. The NFT method enables seven harvests per year and a yield of 11,000 plants per 1,000m2 each time, which is a big difference. 

In terms of other advantages, this method is more hygienic and reduces water consumption, not only during crop production, but also when cleaning the lettuce ready for sale. On top of that, the production process can be automated which saves labour costs. And, further down the chain, the product has a longer shelf life because the lettuce plants are harvested and sold with their roots still attached. In other words, NFT delivers a good return on investment.”

Seminar for growers
"In May 2017, we organised a NFT seminar for growers, academics, investors and NGOs. They all showed high interest in this innovative method. In view of the importance of the NFT technique both economically and environmentally, USAID is currently providing small grants for potential clients to encourage the adoption of this technique. 

We have started five pilot projects since then. I firmly believe that the concept contributes to both a higher yield and export growth for lettuce types – providing that the political situation in our region remains stable, of course.”

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