The lack of labor in the Spanish region Huelva, which has only grown due to the coronavirus outbreak, is driving agricultural innovations, including those aimed at an easier harvest. According to Edesio Caamaño, the manager of the Spanish greenhouse builder Sanjorge Suministros Agrícolas, growing hydroponically is gaining ground in the soft fruit industry slowly but steadily.
"Strawberry growers who are interested in a hydroponic growing system no longer ask us about the benefits that hydroponics brings to strawberry crop, now they ask about the benefits of harvesting the fruits in this system," he said. "Nobody wants to work bending over in the fields. Given the choice, the crews would abandon the strawberry plantations and move to other nearby farms where they can work more comfortably harvesting blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries."
Lower installation costs
The low installation costs of hydroponic systems are another determining factor that is facilitating the sector's reconversion. "Huelva didn't move into hydroponics for a few years because producers had to make a very big investment. We had an agreement with a Dutch company that manufactured the gutter used in the plantations and that was in charge of assembling the greenhouses on the farms. Moving the machine that connected the gutters from Holland to Huelva was not cheap. Thus, installing a hectare would cost no less than 60,000 euro," Caamaño said.
In 2019, Sanjorge Suministros Agrícolas decided to invest nearly 600,000 euro to build its own machine that would generate the specific hydroponic gutters for the cultivation of strawberries. "Now, the grower who wants to set up half a hectare to carry out tests can do so, because the budget for one hectare with everything assembled and ready to start cultivation stands at around 45,000 euro."
SanJorge Suministros Agricolas, which had been installing an average of nearly 10 hectares of hydroponic gutters since it achieved an agreement with the Dutch company in 2006, managed to install about 50 hectares with their new machine in 2020. "This isn't going to stop. Growers that want to plant new strawberry plantations will have to take into account the difficulties that the sector has to secure the workforce throughout the season."
"In five to eight years there will be a total reconversion of Huelva's strawberry sector towards hydroponics," Caamano stated.