Due to the increased minimum wage as well as high energy prices, production costs have risen exorbitantly in many places, and this is also the case for Hans Hofmann's vegetable farm in Nuremberg. "It is very difficult at times to pass on our costs. Retailers are trying to retain their customers by increasingly resorting to import offers. As a result, no major regional promotions could be pushed in February. Food retailers tended to focus on goods from southern Europe, Turkey, Morocco, etc., countries where production costs are not too high anyway."
80 percent of cucumbers go to food retailers
At the beginning of the year, the price of regional items was still at a level that was largely unattractive to consumers. "The large quantities we produce can't easily be marketed to end consumers either." Hofmann markets some of his own produce directly to food retailers, with most of the supermarket chains in the Bavarian area and at the Nuremberg wholesale market supplied through the Frankengemüse Knoblauchsland eG producers' cooperative, he said.
"Our cucumbers are sold 80 percent to retailers. We start planting at the end of January, after which the cucumbers take around five weeks to develop so that they are ready for harvesting around the end of February/beginning of March. We expect to harvest about 150 cucumbers per square meter on average for the year, which of course, depends a lot on the weather."
Furthermore, Hofmann also grows tomatoes under glass. "If I plant tomatoes at the end of January, depending on the variety, I won't be harvesting until mid/late April. We walk the greenhouse once a week to harvest everything. Tomatoes are usually more consistent than cucumbers because the yields are more consistent. Once I start harvesting tomatoes, yields stay at a relatively stable level."
Expansion of the greenhouse area
In August 2022, Hofmann began construction work to expand its greenhouse areas by one hectare. "This is land that used to be used to grow outdoor vegetables such as celery, cabbage, lettuce, etc. These are products that are no longer in high demand throughout the season and for which we experience correspondingly lower sales. So we've focused more towards greenhouse vegetables, meaning tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, and peppers." The new building will also replace an older greenhouse. Once the new one is up and running, the area of the old greenhouse will be converted to farmland."
About one-third of Hofmann's total acreage is under glass. "With the new building, we should be at about three acres of greenhouse and seven acres of field. However, the labor involved in growing under glass for the same area is much higher and also more costly. At the same time, we now generate 80 percent of our sales through greenhouse production."
Open-ground production is thoroughly automated
The first larger plantings in the greenhouse required more labor, as this form of production is significantly more labor-intensive than growing outdoor crops such as lettuce, celery, cabbage, and the like, Hofmann says. "In the open field, all production is automated, for example, in the form of planting machines, which are very efficient and have a high impact. Only harvesting is still done by hand. In the greenhouse, this automation is not yet possible, which is why between seven and eight workers are needed per hectare."
Hofmann has not had to put up with material shortages. "I have received every form of fertilizer, substrate mats, etc. We were still supplied with steel, concrete, and glass for the new building, but significantly with a price increase of 25 to 30 percent."
Optimized production conditions for plants
In modern greenhouses with high-standing walls like Hofmann's, so-called busrail systems are also found. "This is a tubular rail system in which there are heating pipes on the floor that give off heat. This heat can be used selectively depending on the needs of the plant."
The entire ventilation and heating system is computer-controlled in the process. "We are close to optimal conditions for the plants and can ensure that there are virtually no fungal diseases. As a result, we have almost no need to treat our greenhouse plants with pesticides throughout the year." The fruit that is in harvest is also not sprayed directly, as the crop protection system he uses has nozzles that allow the crops to be sprayed in a very targeted manner.
Circular water system
"Throughout Knoblauchsland, water cisterns or water-concrete basins are built as soon as new greenhouses are constructed. All the water from the roof is collected in them and in several thousand cubic meters, which can be used for several weeks. There is also the Knoblauchsland Water Association. This is an association of all gardeners in the region who have built a water supply. The water is collected in several reservoirs. As soon as there are bottlenecks, for example, in July/August, additional water is purchased by the association. This is a bank filtrate. Just last year that was also very contingent."
At the same time, he said, Knoblauchsland can also enjoy sufficient rainfall. "We need less chemical pesticides because of the advantages of the location. But it's still important to make production as efficient as possible so that costs are kept down accordingly, especially so that we can compete well with imported goods."
"We work in a closed system here. That means I actually give the plant more water and nutrients than it needs. But the surpluses can be temporarily stored and filtered via the substrates in the gutters in the tanks, thermally heated, they then recirculate. In the process, no nitrate gets into the groundwater either since we work independently of the soil."
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