Technology saving Spanish
Strawberry production in Huelva, Europe’s largest strawberry producing region, has diminished
in recent years but new technologies mean that it still has a chance to thrive.
The Spanish province of Huelva, located on the
Southwestern corner of the country, facing the
Atlantic Ocean, is the most important provider of
early strawberries in Europe. The climate is mild to
warm, with an average yearly temperature of 18÷C (summer
25÷C, winter 11÷C). Frost occurs very seldomly and
yearly rains oscillate between 500/700mm. More than
3,000 hours of sunlight are available each year.
These are excellent conditions for the development of
an early crop of strawberries. Traditionally, Huelvan
strawberries dominate the European markets between
February and April. Huelva grows 95 % of all Spanish
strawberries, 9 % of the world production and 21 % of
the European production. However, in recent years production,
which peaked in 1999 at 379,500t, of which
258,600t were exported. had scaled down to 288,300 t
in 2004 (the last year official estimations were available).
Value was around €340 million.
This diminishing production shows that the “red gold”
of Huelva is somewhat in trouble. The prohibition of
methyl bromide as a soil disinfectant has been an
important technical setback for the growers. But other
problems loomed some time ago.
The competition from Morocco, the progressive
increase of labour costs and the disappearance of local
workers from the fields, which has obliged growers to
bring in foreign labour during the cropping season, has
kept production going but these higher labour costs are
here to stay and growers are feeling the pinch.
In the wake of these socio-economic changes, technology
is also changing. According to Prof. Josי Lףpez
Medina, director of the Department of Agroforestry of
the University of Huelva and scientist in the “Fundaciףn
Fragaria”, a private – public partnership dedicated to
the study of the problems of the strawberry production
in Huelva, that new technological package has four
nIntroduction of new procedures like pollination with
bumblebees, use of seedlings with balled roots, earlier
planting season, ecological cultivation methods.
By Dr Miguel Merino-Pacheco
Advanced soil-less systems inside
modern greenhouses are helping
to sustain the Spanish strawberry
spector.(Photos: Dr. López Medina)
The author thanks Prof Dr José
López Medina, director of the
Department of Agroforestry of the
University of Huelva and chairman
of the organising committee of the
International Society of
Horticultural Science (ISHS) VI
Symposium for his help in preparing
this article. The symposium will
take place in Huelva in March 2008
IN THE GREENHOUSE17 Fruit & Veg Tech 7.2 2007
nAdoption of an integrated production protocol drawn
up by the regional authorities of Andalusia.
nParticipaton in different quality schemes like
EurepGAP, Nature’s Choice, BRC, IFS.
nIntroduction of soil-less culture systems.
Soil-less cultivation is a very important element of all
this changes; it allows a more environmentally responsible
procedure, especially if a closed system is adopted.
Soil-less systems were first trialled in 1997 and in the
following years the cultivation area doubled yearly.
Presently between 200 and 300 ha of strawberries are
being grown without soil although this area seems to
have stabilised and a total substitution of the older systems
Different structures are used in soil-less cultivation system.
Hanging structures are used inside greenhouses
which makes it easier for workers to move around the
aisles, increasing productivity. In large tunnels the substrate
bags are put either on leaning structures- vertical,
horizontal, sloping; or directly onto the soil.
One of the main advantages of a soil-less cultivation
system it that it is possible to produce all year round.
Due to the fact that it cannot compete any more through
low priced productions, Huelva must do it through differentiation
of its produce. And an early cropping season
is a very important element of this aspect. The
question, asks Prof.Lףpez, is are these changes economically
reasonable or not? New varieties will also play
an important role in the new system, specially the ones
which complete their cycle during short days or those
whose cycle is independent of light duration.
With the experience gathered since 1997, most technical
problems related to soil-less cultivation have been
solved or are nearly solved. Today it is even possible to
eliminate the substrate and carry out the whole cultivation
on a nutritient solution (NFT)
The growers who are adopting this technology are those
who are able to change their work philosophy, who can
appraise advantages and disadvantages of the new production
system and who have the financial means to
make the necessary investments. Curiously, nobody
seems to use system research tools to help their decision-
making despite such instruments being available.
The investment required for soil-less systems ranges
between €30.000/ha and €60.000/ha. This includes supports,
clamps, substrate, irrigation and nutrition dispensing
equipment. In the case of new installations,
greenhouses or large tunnels also have to be built. On
the other hand, the increase in capital costs is coupled
to a decrease in operational costs that could amount to
20% to 30%. Other elements of the cash-flow calculations
are predictions of future prices but the estimation
of the profitability of the crop, and the design of alternative
strategies to improve it, requires the simultaneous
consideration of a large number of technical and
economic variables, a task that can be only accomplished
safely when the whole system and its inner and
outer interactions are considered.
Nowadays, out of season produce can be sold with a
premium of up to €0,60/kg. An interesting plus, considering
that in the last season (2005-2006), the average
price in Huelva was €1,44/kg.
As a conclusion, the strawberry production of Huelva is
facing enormous challenges and is reacting to them by
improving technology, looking for market niches and
increasing the quality of its produce. All of that makes
the region an interesting “laboratory” for the development
and diffusion of new technologies for strawberries.
Hanging structures make it easier to walk between the aisles. A “home made” supporting system for soil-less strawberries inside a large tunnel.
Other berry plantings
Other berry crops have been introduced
in recent years, in an effort
to diversify income sources.
Raspberries (1200 ha) and cranberries
(300 ha) have a significative
share of the planted area of the