Juan Ramón Hernández, general director of Perla Huelva: "Hydroponic crops in height have given us a competitive advantage in hiring labor"

The cultivation of berries in Huelva it hides behind it a history as successful as it is contemporary. The Huelva strawberry, whose production began to develop in a pioneering way in the province only between the late 50s and early 60s, has managed to position Spain as the leading producer of this fruit in the European Union; Although the true magnitude reached by this industry in Huelva is clear through the important figures it shows: with a share that touches 97% of the total national harvest, the production of strawberries in the province alone represented in the 2020 campaign / 21 approximately 23,8% of the production of this fruit in the EU-27, according to Eurostat data, ranking well ahead of the next largest Community producing origins, Poland and Germany, with shares of 16,3% and 13,8 , XNUMX%, respectively.

And one berry even more recently introduced in Huelva, the blueberry, has managed to follow the path of leadership that the strawberry has traced in its relatively few decades of history: in 2020, Huelva blueberries –which accounted for 93,9% of Spanish production–, they placed Spain as the leading producer of blueberries in the EU-27, sharing the podium with strawberries, with a share of the province that was close to 33,4%; also at a great distance from the next largest Community producers, Poland and Portugal.

The blueberry has undergone a rapid expansion in Huelva in recent years - in the last five seasons alone its surface has increased by more than 130% - and not only its growing demand, but also new cultivation techniques such as hydroponics have contributed to the fact that consolidated companies in the Huelva countryside, such as Perla Huelva, with more than 20 years in the cultivation of strawberries, have opted for it.

“For now we only have 2 hectares in production, but we hope to grow in the next 2 years to 7 hectares. From the first moment we have started to produce with hydroponic cultivation, in 30 liter bags of coconut fiber substrate with a planting density of 9.200 plants per hectare. Hydroponic cultivation allows the tree to start producing earlier and, by having more plants per unit area, the yields per hectare are also higher ”, explains Juan Ramón Hernández, general director of the company based in Rociana del Condado.

“The cultivation in coconut substrate, which is supplied to us by the Dutch company Dutch Plantin, we had already tested it in the cultivation of strawberries and raspberries and the difference with respect to the soil is very significant. The berries They are very sensitive to moisture in the soil and the substrate allows this factor to be perfectly controlled. With the help of technology, such as the various types of sensors or the use of microtensiometers, the appropriate humidity values ​​can be controlled at all times, making the application of irrigation be carried out only when the plant really demands it ”, explains Juan Ramón.

“Not only does it save water, but only just enough is spent. Thanks to technology, hydroponic crops allow us to use this limited resource as efficiently as possible ”, he emphasizes. “And the next step will be the recirculation of the drainage water. In soil cultivation, the water that drains goes to the aquifers, but in the very short term we will have the technology to take advantage of the drainage water from hydroponic crops and reuse it as many times as possible. Sustainability is essential, and today not only an agriculture that is not sustainable has no future, but a society that is not sustainable ”.

“The same happens with the subscriber, which is done on demand and allows the process to be optimized. On the other hand, it facilitates the management of the crop and allows things that are unthinkable in soil production: specifically in raspberries, the plants can be moved and put in cold chambers, which in turn allows to advance production, and in the case of the blueberry, plants can be produced in high density and, as the trees grow, they can be removed and redistributed, advancing the production in a smaller area ”, points out the professional of the industry of the berries.

“In addition, another of the advantages that hydroponic cultivation offers is that it allows the collectors a more gentle work by giving them a more ergonomic position when harvesting, and this makes it easier to attract labor for the collection. In fact, having our strawberries grown in hydroponics has given us a competitive advantage in hiring labor compared to other colleagues who grow it in the ground ”, shares Juan Ramón.

Is hydroponics the future of blueberry production in Huelva?

The advantages of hydroponics in the cultivation of berries they are not only explicable, but also visible in the agricultural landscape of the province, where, traveling along the roads of regions such as the Condado, you can see more and more crops of blueberries in pots, strawberries in sacks or raspberries in trays.

"The growth of hydroponics is being exponential and the difference with traditional cultivation is reducing by leaps and bounds," says Juan Ramón. "I would not say that hydroponics will completely unseat soil cultivation in the future, because in Huelva we have very good sandy soils that behave very similar to hydroponics, but I think that the most avant-garde companies are going to base a large part of production in hydroponic cultivation. Agriculture is moving towards technologization and digitization and, as happened when tractors arrived 60-70 years ago, that the one that did not adapt to them has become extinct, now it will happen with the use of technology in agriculture, irrigation efficiency and the optimization of water and nutrients or new cultivation techniques ”, he reflects.

Despite its production method, blueberries, as well as the rest of the berries Huelva, will continue to be food with a high functional value. As Juan Ramón recalls, strawberries contain more vitamin C than oranges and blueberries are a great source of antioxidants, and also constitute snacks healthy, very easy to transport and consume anytime, anywhere; factors that explain the increase in its demand and, in the case of blueberries, the significant growth in consumption per capita which has occurred in recent years and is expected to continue to be produced in Community countries. “Precisely we destine most of our production to the export to Europe, although we are making more and more national market. Little by little in Spain we also observe that consumption is increasing ”, concludes Juan Ramón.

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