The Chinese horticultural industry develops at a rapid pace. "Everybody is aware of the importance of hydroponic growing for the quality and efficiency of tomato production. What people do not agree upon, is whether Dutch Venlo-style greenhouses are feasible in a Chinese context", says Zhang Tianzhu, general manager of Zhongnong Futong. The Chinese growers recently started a collaboration with the Dutch Tomatoworld.
The Beijing International Urban Agricultural Science and Technology Park
Zhongnong Futong is short for Beijing Zhongnong Futong Horticulture Co.,Ltd, a high-tech agricultural service company specialized in the planning, design, construction, and management of agricultural plantations and greenhouses.
For example, they operate the Beijing International urban agricultural science and technology park in Tongzhou District, Beijing, with an acreage of about a 100 hectares. "Here we display various greenhouse solutions. We plan to begin the construction of a Sino-Dutch sunlight greenhouse next year. This project is one of the results of cooperation with Wageningen University", says professor Zhang Tianzhu, general manager of the company.
With these activities they are a forerunner in the market. "The Chinese tomato industry only just started to develop hydroponic tomato farms", says professor Zhang. "Everybody, from large corporations to small-scale growers, is aware of the importance of hydroponic growing for the quality and efficiency of tomato production."
"The Chinese tomato industry started developing quite late by comparison", says Zhang. "The Dutch tomato industry experienced problems decades ago that the Chinese tomato industry is facing only now. Apart from this, the overall condition of Chinese horticultural industry is somewhat outdated. The level of technology and the condition of facilities both require large-scale investment. This overhaul of the agricultural industry in China is not something that will happen overnight."
He estimates that almost half of the large-scale tomato producers in China already work hydroponically. "Most of the large-scale tomato farms use coconut fiber, vermiculite, or perlite. These are relatively expensive base materials for tomato cultivation. Small-scale farmers without the required economic capacity tend to collect their own material such as straw or peat. These materials are much cheaper. Although the difference in output between traditional tomato farms and the hydroponic tomato farms is not yet clear, the latter has obviously become a popular method for tomato cultivation."
Farmers working inside a greenhouse
However, it's not as simple as just building these greenhouses. "An important topic in the Chinese tomato industry is the question whether Dutch Venlo-style greenhouses are feasible in a Chinese context", Professor Zhang explains. Several companies do not believe that either the concept of the Venlo-style greenhouse or the practical installation have any chance of success in China because this approach makes it more difficult for farmers to make a profit.
First, the initial investment for a Venlo-style greenhouse is high. "When the price of agricultural products is relatively low, people find it difficult to see the economic value of a Venlo-style greenhouse. This economic reality means that the spread of this kind of technology faces many challenges."
Second, many growers simply do not have the right conditions for the Venlo-style greenhouse. "In the Netherlands the climate is relatively gentle and the Venlo-style greenhouse is suitable for these conditions. In China, however, many farmers are in areas that are either too cold or too hot. Under these circumstances, the Venlo-style greenhouse wastes a lot of energy. China is huge and the climate conditions are diverse. Growers need to pick their spot very carefully and apply whatever method is most suitable for their situation."
Computer image of the Datong Agricultural Carnival
A cluster of agricultural facilities in Nanhe
Making a profit
"The differences between an open-field tomato plantation and greenhouse tomato plantation are still quite big in China. Tomatoes grow much better in the conditions provided by greenhouse farms, but for a company that is not the only consideration. Companies have to make a profit", Zhang summaries.
"The investment required for greenhouse technology must be balanced by the increased output before anyone would consider the development of this technology."
The team with Zhongnong Futong is currently working hard to find a solution that is somewhere in the middle. "We want to make a connection between existing facilities in China and greenhouse technology from the Netherlands. We want to improve current horticultural methods and maximize the price-quality ratio of Chinese tomato greenhouses."
For example, many Chinese greenhouses are relatively low, which makes them unsuitable for mechanization. "We are working to improve the structure of these greenhouses, so that we can apply Dutch greenhouse technology and improve the efficiency of these facilities."
Signing ceremony for Zhongnong Futong and Tomato World
To aid in these developments, the Chinese company recently signed an agreement with the Dutch company Tomato World. The Dutch subsidiary company of Zhongnong Futong will become a golden member of Tomato World in 2020.
The focus of cooperation between Zhongnong Futong and Tomato World includes cultivation of new product varieties, plantation technology, management experience, marketing methods, and training. These are all important aspects of the tomato industry that require further development, he believes.
"On the one hand, we hope to exchange information with Tomato World and its members, to learn from years of experience and innovation in the Dutch tomato industry. On the other hand, we also hope that this cooperation will help Tomato World to extend its influence in China and in the Asian tomato industry in general. This will help other members of Tomato World to enter the Chinese tomato market", Zhang says. "We hope that this cooperation agreement with the Dutch Tomato World will help to strengthen the international brand of Zhongnong Futong. We also hope that this cooperation will help us raise the level of our technology and improve our product quality. This will help us with our next goal, to become the official tomato supplier for the Winter Olympics in Beijing in 2022."
For more information:
Beijing Zhongnong Futong Horticulture Co.,Ltd