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Lit tomato cultivation heading back to…?

Last summer, people feared a return 'to the old ways': Dutch tomatoes in the summer, Spanish ones in the winter. Last year's unusual energy situation considerably affected lit tomato cultivation, though some growers dared leave their lights on. That will happen more often this winter despite much remaining uncertainty and ongoing price negotiations. Innovations are helping growers deliver their products year-round. "We're going to use our lights as usual," is the occasional optimistic cry.

That is, at least, what those in southern Europe are assuming. They are counting on the serious return of Dutch and Belgian lit cultivation. In recent months, Italians, Spaniards, and others have said they expect "the Netherlands to fully return to the market this winter." They, too, see that energy prices are much lower than last year. There were no giant gas price spikes like in the summer of 2022. Despite a still volatile energy market, growers in the south of Europe are taking higher Dutch productions into account.

Last year, there were Dutch tomatoes from roughly 100 hectares on the market, and several growers opted to start fall cultivation again. For better or worse, that was an attempt to offer local tomatoes throughout the winter, thus competing with major imports from the south. Morocco is making headway, and Turkey joined in last year. In recent years, the Netherlands and Belgium could make a name for themselves with high-quality crops grown under lights. Until the gas crisis upended the applecart, acreage kept increasing. The 'lit area' grew substantially to 800 hectares for tomatoes and as much as 900 hectares of lit tomato cultivation.

This summer, an estimated 300 to 400 hectares of tomatoes were being grown under lights just in the Netherlands. There is optimism, though some would call it "relief." In Belgium, about 70% of growers are expected to switch their lights back on. Opinions on when that will be differ. Some will begin 'classic' planting in mid-October, others later, say in mid-November. Several growers did the latter last year. A 'half-lit cultivation' so to speak, although the lights "still all went on" eventually. Despite the (slightly) more favorable winter crop prospects, recovery is certainly not complete yet. Many are holding back, and people use terms like "fickle" regarding the energy market situation. "Everything is different," they say.

Growers who are using lights do so mainly above their TOV plants, of which all kinds, large and small, are popular. Lighting above loose tomatoes and for small tomatoes is trickier, given the fierce competition from Spain, but especially Morocco. There, the energy crisis affects growers far less and laborers - who have to pick all those loose tomatoes - wages are lower. Dutch and Belgian 'bunch' growers can still distinguish themselves from their southern competitors.

"Everything with green bits remaining" is still "challenging" for the often less high-tech growers in the south. The longer transit, and thus, delivery times to stores, makes it hard to keep the green trusses parts fresh. But, those growers and breeders are not doing nothing, and, in Morocco, growing vine cherry tomatoes is something they are getting better at.

Besides less acreage than in the 2022 crisis year, there are other developments like the advance of LED lighting and sorely-needed, ToBRFV-resistant varieties. You could consider the advance of LEDs somewhat "forced." LED lighting is more energy efficient, which is interesting given the much higher energy prices. Half of the growers who use LEDs still opt for a combination with HPS lighting. A few took the step to use full LED last year. Some say it is the only way to ensure a winter crop. If energy prices are good, you can use HPS lighting, even in a hybrid form with LEDs. But that is a gamble. Growers note that, like when HPS was becoming popular, some fine-tuning is still needed to grow perfect tomatoes under LEDs.

The emergence of ToBRFV-resistant varieties is happening just as fast. To curb the threat of the Tomato Brown Rugose Fruit Virus, more and more growers are not just applying strict hygiene measures but also getting resistant varieties. Breeding companies have been working hard to develop such varieties. There are still discussions about the level of resistance and whether this is the only solution to the problem. It is not; growers realize all too well. However, having tomatoes not infected with this nasty virus gives some peace of mind.

Regardless of how hard breeding companies work or how relatively quickly there are resistant varieties after the virus outbreak a few years back, only some can grow with the varieties. There is not always enough seed. None of the parties offering resistant varieties has enough to supply all growers. That is quite different from whether all growers want these. It is said that production and quality-wise, it is "still challenging." Resistant tomatoes grown under LEDs must keep meeting the specs: production and quality requirements. Nonetheless, growers are optimistic about the varieties' performance in their greenhouses. They are undoubtedly vigorous.

Year-round work
Even though it is not yet fully winter, more growers are slowly turning on their lights again. Sometimes simply to balance the electricity grid (these days, being smart with energy is another source of income for growers), but certainly also to help the tomatoes out on darker days when the sun does not come out. Not yet mentioned, but also essential: with lit crops, growers can offer their people year-round work, thus retaining employees.

In recent years, cultivation under lights has proved profitable, and after last year's severe disruption, it seems to be back on track. Whether the entire area will be lit again remains to be seen. Besides the mentioned uncertainties, the sector is already looking beyond this winter, when stricter taxes and environmental regulations are feared. This winter's market seems to be heading toward a mix of Dutch and Belgian (LED) lit tomatoes and imports from Spain and Morocco. Lit cultivation has an advantage, though: security. Buyers, who "understand" the difficult situation growers are in, appreciate that reliable greenhouse crop, which is much less sensitive to weather conditions. That does not simply vanish after a crisis year.