Mechanise or die

Efficiency is becoming an increasingly determining factor for business survival, and at Rijk Zwaan they are offering materials that are ‘machinable’ for transplanting and harvesting.
Rijk Zwaan Lechuga Snack

Mechanisation is pushing through in open-air crops as an alternative in a complicated context. Labour continues to be one of the restricting factors, and more and more companies (mainly those supplying the United Kingdom) are opting for ‘machinable’ materials that allow the tasks to be speeded up and savings in costs to be made. In the Region of Murcia, around 75% of the transplants are already automated, and studies on harvest mechanisation are on the rise. To do this, two aspects are being outlined: smaller-sized companies that contract machinery services from suppliers (paying them a set price per plant) and companies with an important volume that take on an investment in their own machinery. “In the very near future, mechanised harvesting will be implemented and those who don’t move over to this method are not going to be competitive. Some companies will end up disappearing,” José Luis Saiz, Account Manager at Rijk Zwaan, affirms.

For years Rijk Zwaan has been working on the development of materials for this action and this year one of the centre points of their Winter Open Field Days will be mechanisation. At the open days in February, at their CED La Palma (Cartagena, Murcia) their entire catalogue will be on display, developed to adapt to automation, as well as machinery suppliers who will exhibit the advances existing on this subject, and they will show their operation with Rijk Zwaan’s varieties.

In its portfolio, different typologies are offered for Fresh Cut produce (lollos, oak leaf, batavias…) that close the cycle, making up the necessary mixture for any salad and all of them incorporate the Knox property (delaying oxidation and lengthening shelf life). “We have varieties of Knox iceberg lettuce that allow the hearts to be removed in the fields, leaving the trunks at the source in order to only transport the leaves. Transport costs may be reduced by up to 30% using this method, because the wastage remains in the fields and savings are also made in labour costs in the factory,” Saiz explains.

For Iceberg lettuces, which have the largest production volume, at present there is no optimum solution, because their shape makes 100% mechanised harvesting difficult, although there is a semi-automatic harvesting option. “Now we have a line of varieties that are grown on tables or beds instead of in ridges, offering greater density per hectare with the same inputs, which also means greater yield with less costs.”

Amongst the centre points of the Winter Open Field Days is the Knox property, which allows any type of lettuce to be grown for fresh and processed use. Another point involves resistances, mainly to Bremia or downy mildew (Bl:16-37EU), and they have materials that are resistant to Fusarium 1 and 4, a soil problem that causes many setbacks, as it has become de-seasonalised and no longer is something that only occurs in the summer, but rather it affects icebergs, romaines, little gems, etc. all year long.

The third point is the greenhouse hydroponic lettuce catalogue. In this line, the main new development is the iceberg Mamutik RZ, but they have new developments in all the typology ranges: batavias, romaines, lollos, Cristal, Salanovas, Salatrios (a combination of 3 different lettuces with diverse leaves, textures and colours, giving a bouquet effect.)

“Hydroponic crops will become increasingly important, but they won’t take over from open-air crops. I calculate that they will go from 5% to 30% under plastic and this will be accompanied by investment in indoor crops with high technology and climate control and cogeneration and/or renewable energy.”

Recently, there have been serious production problems and stock depletion in the USA due to the combination of extreme temperatures, soil fungal problems and virus presence, which have caused exorbitant prices during a time of maximum demand, reaching “up to 9 dollars/lettuce (5 at source).” A situation that has meant investment funds have become interested and are starting to study options for setting up lettuce greenhouses. There are also companies that have raised funding rounds in which they have collected large amounts of capital. In Northern Europe indoor crops in high-tech hydroponics are spreading alongside cogeneration. “They are producing lettuces and, in some cases, in this energy crisis situation they can charge more for the energy than for the crop itself.”

In Spain, there are already companies with lettuce hydroponic crops in the area around Madrid and in the region of Murcia, in this case mainly in the open-air, to prevent soil problems and others related to the fertiliser restrictions. “Indoor crops could be an alternative in the future for commodities, but there are already producers growing added value products, still as a market niche, such as leaves for sandwiches for restaurant chains, Salatrios… Profitability, given the high investment needed, comes with efficiency and the ideal method would be to set up greenhouses for growing all year long, with at least 10 harvest cycles.”

An extensive portfolio

The wide offer by Rijk Zwaan in leafy produce continues to grow with new Salanova options for open field growing, incorporating green and red Gems and Teen Leaf for mechanical harvesting, along with more Crunchy varieties (a lettuce with flavour, crunchiness, a mix between romaine and iceberg, with a different shape and that is easily identifiable) and new incorporations to the Snack Lettuce range. This line continues to be developed on the Spanish and foreign markets due to its flavour and versatility in the kitchen, as it is easy to prepare and provides a different use closely linked to meetings, health and sustainability (the leaves replace the plastic packaging, for example.) “It is a range that is on the rise and continues to show important growth not only on the Spanish market, but also in Europe, on the German, English and Dutch markets.”

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