“Hydroponics at height has given us a competitive advantage in terms of recruiting labor.”
The cultivation of berries in Huelva is a contemporary success story. The production of strawberries from Huelva, which began to develop as a pioneering project between the end of the 50s and the beginning of the 60s of the twentieth century, allowed Spain to become the largest producer of this fruit in the European Union, although the true scale of this industry in Huelva is evident when you look at the figures it gives. It accounts for almost 97% of Spain’s total harvest and around 23.8% of the production of this fruit in the EU-27 during the 2020/21 campaign, according to Eurostat data, placing it well ahead of the next largest EU producers, Poland and Germany, with respective shares of 16.3% and 13.8%.
Blueberries, which were introduced even more recently to Huelva, have followed in the footsteps of strawberries throughout their decades of history. In 2020, blueberries from Huelva, which accounted for 93.9% of Spanish production, made Spain the largest fruit producer in the EU-27, with the province accounting for a share of almost 33.4% , far ahead of the next largest producers in the EU. Poland and Portugal.
Blueberries have grown rapidly in recent years in Huelva: in the last five seasons alone, the area has increased by more than 130%. Growing demand and new cultivation techniques, such as hydroponics, have helped their adoption by consolidated companies, such as Perla Huelva, which has been cultivating strawberries for over 20 years.
“At the moment we only have 2 hectares in production, but we hope to increase to 7 hectares in the next 2 years. From the very beginning, we have been producing hydroponically in 30 liter bags of coconut fiber substrate with a planting density of 9,200 plants per hectare. Hydroponics allows the tree to start producing earlier and, by having more plants per unit area, yields per hectare are also higher, ”says Juan Ramón Hernández, CEO of the Rociana-based company. del Condado.
Juan Ramón Hernández at the Perla Huelva blueberry plantation.
“The cultivation in coconut substrate, which is supplied to us by the Dutch company Dutch Plantin, had already been tested with strawberries and raspberries, and the difference compared to cultivation in soil is very significant. The berries are very sensitive to soil moisture and the substrate allows us to perfectly control this factor. With the help of technology, like various types of sensors or microtensiometers, the right humidity values can be checked at all times, so that irrigation is only applied when the plant really needs it, ”explains Juan Ramón.
“Not only does this save water, but only the right amount is used. Hydroponics allows us to use this finite resource as efficiently as possible, ”he says. “The next step will be the recirculation of drainage water. In soil cultivation, the water that runs off ends up in aquifers, but in the very short term we will have the technology that allows us to reuse drainage water from hydroponics as much. Sustainability is essential, and today, there is no future not only for unsustainable agriculture, but also for unsustainable societies as a whole. “
“The same goes for fertilization, which is done on demand and allows the process to be optimized. It also facilitates the management of crops and allows things unthinkable in soil production. For example, raspberry plants can be moved and placed in a cold room, which in turn helps to advance production, and in the case of blueberries, plants can be produced in high density and, as trees grow. grow, they can be redistributed, advancing production in a smaller area, ”explains the berry industry professional. .
“Another advantage of hydroponics is that it makes the work of pickers easier by allowing them to be in a more ergonomic position when harvesting, which makes it easier to attract labor to picking. In fact, growing our strawberries in hydroponics to a certain height has given us a competitive advantage in hiring labor over other colleagues who grow them in the field, ”says Juan Ramón.
Is hydroponics the future of blueberry production in Huelva?
The benefits of hydroponics in growing berries are not only explainable but visible in the agricultural landscape of the province. Traveling the roads of some counties, we see more and more blueberries in jars, strawberries in bags or raspberries in trays.
“The growth of hydroponics is exponential and the gap between it and traditional culture is being closed by leaps and bounds,” says Juan Ramon. “I wouldn’t say that hydroponics will completely replace soil cultivation in the future, because in Huelva we have very good sandy soils that give very similar results to hydroponics, but I think the main companies will develop much of their production on hydroponics. Agriculture is evolving towards technology and digitization and, as was the case when tractors arrived 60-70 years ago, those that do not adapt will be left behind. This is what is happening now with the use of technology in agriculture, efficient irrigation, the optimization of water and nutrients, or new cultivation techniques, ”says -he.
Despite their method of production, blueberries, along with other berries from Huelva, will continue to be foods of high functional value. As Juan Ramón recalls, strawberries contain more vitamin C than oranges, and blueberries are a great source of antioxidants and are healthy snacks that are easy to carry and consume anytime and anywhere. These factors explain the increase in their demand and, in the case of blueberries, the significant growth in their per capita consumption in recent years, which is expected to continue in all EU countries. “Most of our production is destined for export to Europe, although we are increasingly working with the domestic market. Little by little, we are also seeing an increase in consumption in Spain, ”explains Juan Ramón.
For more information:
Juan Ramón Hernández Pérez
Perlahuelva Fruits Export SL
Calle Zalema, 14
21720 Rociana del Condado, Huelva, Spain
Phone. : +34 610 728 319