At the end of this month, the Agrotopia rooftop greenhouse in Roelare will officially open its doors. In an update, Inagro looks forward to that moment and future research. The research and advice agency does this together with growers Franky Galle and Bert Depoortere.
Combined, tomato grower Franky (50) and lettuce grower Bert (39) have a great deal of horticultural expertise. For them, Agrotopia is the ideal 'testing ground' for gaining new insights into crops and the broader business operations of the horticultural company of the future.
Franky Galle: "While my grandfather still grew his tomatoes in plant pots, the greenhouses that my father built made it possible to work standing up. However, the greatest invention in horticulture was the tubular rail system. It made work lighter and ensured automation. Hydroponics was also a huge change. Our company only grows tomatoes - from cherry tomatoes over loose tomatoes to large vine tomatoes - on a total of 19 hectares, spread over four locations in Ingelmunster and Roeselare.
Bert Depoortere: "I started growing lettuce in 2008 right across from my parents' farm in Ardooie. In addition to 1.5 hectares of lettuce in the open ground, we have also built 2.4 hectares of greenhouses for hydroponics in two phases over the past five years. Soil cultivation has not been written off yet, but we feel that hydro is the future. Today, we grow heads of lettuce in soil in the greenhouse, while in our hydroponic greenhouses we combine heads of lettuce with multicolour lettuce."
Trying things out
Bert Depoortere: "Agrotopia allows us to research varieties, and try out the newest methods, without risk. Here you can find out how diseases can be combated or how we can solve issues in terms of cultivation technique."
Franky Galle: "The double use of space is also something that we don't do ourselves. Agrotopia is a tall building in which other cultivation systems can be devised. We have been growing in the same, labour-intensive way for 30 years. Shouldn't we copy the gutter system of lettuce cultivation? Perhaps we could save a quarter or half the labour hours. We are happy to leave Agrotopia to find out whether that is feasible. Combining tomato cultivation with the cultivation of a protein source is another Agrotopia test case that we are looking at with interest."
Improving technology too
Bert Depoortere: "Perhaps Agrotopia should look not only at colleges and universities but also at cooperation with technical schools. After all, in hydro cultivation, besides the crop itself, the mechanics have also become very important. Perhaps new set-up methods or other adjustments will enable us to work even more efficiently."
Franky Galle: "I am also curious about what is possible with LED light. I have made the suggestion to find out which crops other than lettuce and tomato can thrive under it. But I also see many possibilities for our entire operation. A pre-set programme with which you can control an entire crop via computer should make all the arranging and setting up we still do today superfluous."
Franky Galle: "I also see Agrotopia as an important showcase to the public. Not enough emphasis is placed on how sustainably we are already working today. Those buying tomatoes in the shop don't realise what's involved."
Bert Depoortere: "Opening our own business to the public is becoming more and more difficult. Due to the pressure of the virus, we prefer to keep our doors closed. Agrotopia, on the other hand, does have the accommodation to get to know our sector in a safe way."