hanged gutters in Spain

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.


he 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.

New technologies

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

main elements:


Introduction 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


(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

Strawberry International

Symposium for his help in preparing

this article. The symposium will

take place in Huelva in March 2008




Fruit & Veg Tech 7.2 2007

Spanish strawberries


Adoption of an integrated production protocol drawn

up by the regional authorities of Andalusia.


Participaton in different quality schemes like

EurepGAP, Nature’s Choice, BRC, IFS.


Introduction 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

is unlikely.

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)

Capital investment

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




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