Rioja is renowned as the land of some of the best wines in the world. At the same time, next to vineyards, other crops such as traditional tomatoes are grown using modern techniques like hydroponics in high-tech greenhouses
Marcos and Álvaro Pérez brothers studied agricultural engineering, but instead of following the family tradition of growing their vineyards, they decided to try something completely different: “We wanted a challenge, something where we could apply our knowledge and learn more techniques simultaneously”
Thus, in 2014, the company Riojaselecto was created, out of the town of Zarratón, in the highlands of Rioja, 600 meters above sea level. “The climate is tough here, with cold winters, temperatures as low as -10C, hot summers with days of 35-40C, and strong winds - which is to be expected since we are located in a plateau” explains Marcos
Therefore, there was a need to design a facility capable to produce in such extremes conditions: double plastic cover, heating system, fogging for summertime, and so on.
From the beginning, the idea was clear: the market was full of tasteless tomatoes, so there was a clear demand for high-quality, tasteful products. “In Spain, many local varieties are grown in summer on open fields. On the other hand, commercial varieties are mainly grown in greenhouses, as aspects like products shelf-life are more important.”
Riojaselecto took one of those tasty varieties and started to grow it in perlite. “We were able to obtain the equally tasty fruits, before and after the open field season”.
That means producing in spring and in autumn, as it is not interesting to produce in summer (because there are a lot of open field tomatoes and prices are lower), and not even in winter, as the light level is below the required 20 mols/m2 and day. In Almería, that is how far it gets, so it is possible to produce in winter without artificial light. Yet, that is not the case in Northern Spain, where at least 3 months have radiation levels below the required 20 mols. If you compare that with the Netherlands, for instance, of course, the period with lower light levels is even longer.
Comparison of light levels in The Netherlands, Northern Spain and Almería
Not enough light
Having not enough light to produce winter tomatoes does not mean it is not possible to grow them. Riojaselecto starts planting on December 15th to then harvest at the beginning of March. The spring production continues until the beginning of July, and on July the 15th the greenhouse is planted again
Autumn tomatoes will be harvested from the beginning of September until the beginning of December when the greenhouse is emptied and disinfected for the new season. “In this way, we can offer a high-quality product out of season, and with a remarkable production of 30 kg/m2 for an ancient variety like this” explains Marcos, especially taking into account there is not any production during the summer months
Riojaselecto has to deal with low temperatures from the beginning of the season, so they have a thermal screen, double plastic covering (“it is true we lose some light, but the isolation effect is great), and a big boiler of biomass. The main advantage is the flexibility: it is possible to burn many kinds of different products, like almond peels, wood pellets, pellets coming from the olive industry, and so on. “This does not mean we are out of the energy crisis situation, but at the moment the situation with these products is not as bad as with the gas in Northern Europe”
Traditional beef variety tied with the Tomsystem
Growing is carried out following the most modern techniques of integrated pest management, such as bumblebee pollination and using natural enemies, like Nesidiocoris Tenuis
The most problematic pest is the Tuta Absoluta. “Last year, we had a high concentration from the beginning of the crop and it was hard to keep it under control. We tried all the available possibilities, but we decided to stop the crop a little bit earlier in order to clean up the greenhouse and start the new season without the pest”. Thus, Riojaselecto uses water traps, plastic traps, sexual confusion with feromones and a new system to attract the tuta moths and collect them designed by a company out of Almería.
Plastic traps with pheromones to attract and catch tuta absoluta moths
The machine has very specific LED lights which are switched on only during the night to avoid attracting the bumblebees so to get to the tuta moths first and suck them into a collector
Biocaptur machine to attract and vacuum tuta moths
The 17.000 plants of the greenhouse need to be tied, pruned and lowered every week, apart from the harvesting and sorting of the tomatoes, so the operation is labor intensive. The task of tying the crop was initially done with plastic clips, but now it is easier and faster thanks to the Tomsystem. “Before we needed 4 people during two complete days to clip all the plants, and now we can do it with just 2 people”, explains Marcos
Video showing how the Tomsystem is used in the greenhouse of Riojaselecto
Riojaselecto's ancient variety of tomatoes is available in Northern Spain, Madrid, and Barcelona markets along spring and autumn, for the joy of tasty tomato lovers.
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