Greenhouses in the Netherlands have robots on their payroll: the machines glide automatically from one tomato picker to the next, collecting crates of the popular red fruit. A touch of a button is all it takes to make the fully loaded robot car follow magnetic strips on the floor into the warehouse. Although these electronic harvesters aren’t at work all over the world, many tomato growers have already fully automated their processes. Today’s greenhouses are equipped with computer systems that maintain the weather conditions best suited to promoting growth. The modern technology also controls temperature and humidity, and regulates irrigation, ventilation and the amount of light. In other words, computers cater to the tomatoes’ every need. Given the enormous quantities of tomatoes the world now consumes, keeping on top of the work would be almost impossible without automation.
According to figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), farmers worldwide produce more than 160 million tons of tomatoes every year. What’s more, the selection is huge. These days, you can choose from hundreds of tomato varieties, such as the small red cherry tomatoes that are ideal for a salad, and unusual dark purple varieties like the black cherry. Yet despite this diversity, tomatoes are usually sold in one of two formats: fresh or industrially processed as purée, ketchup, or chopped and canned. Each format demands that the tomatoes fulfill very different requirements. Fresh tomatoes should be firm and very aromatic so that they can survive the journey to the supermarket and taste good to consumers. Tomatoes heading for industrial use, however, need to have a lot of flesh.
The top producers of tomatoes in 2012
A Fruity Success Story
One of the main producers of fresh tomatoes is Mexico. “In the past few years Mexican companies have started to move from growing tomatoes outdoors to cultivating them in greenhouses,” says Carlos Quintanilla Velazquez, owner of El Sureño Invernaderos in San Luis Potosí, Mexico. Since 2006, his company produces tomatoes in green- and net houses. Since then the harvest of e.g. Rome tomatoes increased from 50 tons/ha to 400 tons/ha in 2014. The Latin American country now produces around 60 percent of the fresh tomatoes sold on the US market. “We recently started having more and more problems with plant diseases transmitted by vector insects in our outdoor tomatoes,” says David Montoya, production manager of El Sureño Invernaderos. Those issues are much less problematic in the controlled conditions of a greenhouse and the plants’ exposure to heat and cold stress is also reduced.
different types of tomatoes are
cultivated around the world
(Source: Scientific American).
The choice of cultivation method affects how the plants need to be cared for: outdoor tomatoes are exposed to the elements and are easy prey for fungi and virus. Dry conditions can lead to the spread of powdery mildew, a fungal disease that attacks the leaves. Heavy rain can expose tomatoes to, among other things, Phytophthora infestans, a fungus that causes the fruit to rot. Insects such as whitefly can also damage crops because they often spread pathogens. Dr Angelo Caione, an agricultural economist, is all too familiar with these problems. His 40-hectare family-run farm close to Foggia in southeast Italy grows tomatoes for industrial processing. “The worst fungal infection is mildew during rainy periods,” he says. “But thanks to the crop protection products from Bayer, our tomatoes are very well protected.” Cotton bollworm, a moth whose larvae eats the plants’ leaves and stalks and burrow into the tomatoes, has also been a problem. Caione has therefore begun putting traps out to get a better idea of the extent of infestation. Bayer is helping him: “We provide tomato producers with intensive support and integrated solutions that cover all stages of cultivation,” says Carlo Risi, Crop Manager Vegetables at Bayer in Italy.
Another way of protecting tomatoes against fungi or viruses is to breed them so that they become resistant. However, if conventional methods were used to do this, it would be years before a tomato plant with the desired level of resistance appeared on the market. That is why Bayer’s vegetable seed experts are focusing on genetic analyses. By looking at the genome of a young plant, analysts can tell whether or not it has the characteristics that make it a suitable candidate for breeding. This gets things done a lot faster than conventional crossbreeding could. “We produce high-quality seeds and deliver them to tomato growers and nurseries all over the world,” says Harm Ammerlaan, a vegetable seed expert at Bayer in the Netherlands. Breeding activities aren’t just about building up resistance in the tomatoes, though. It’s also possible to make continual improvements to properties like firmness and taste. The “Intense” tomato is one example of this.
We produce high-quality seeds and deliver them to tomato growers and nurseries all over the world.
Bigger Harvests on Small Fields
Tomatoes in India
India grows its tomatoes in a very different way to other regions. Although India is the world’s second largest producer of the fruit, its tomatoes aren’t cultivated on large swathes of agricultural land, but by millions of smallholdings across the country. Due to a lack of access to the necessary expertise, cultivation methods were suboptimal for a long time, meaning that the fields only produced moderate harvests. Bayer addressed the problem by running large-scale training projects that introduced tens of thousands of smallholders to improved cultivation technologies. Yields have since multiplied.
India is also becoming more aware of the importance of healthy, high-quality foods. It is therefore crucial that farmers use crop protection products properly. Thanks to the training projects and cultivation expertise, things have greatly improved in this area, too. That means supermarkets and consumers are benefiting from increasingly high-quality tomatoes.
Dutch tomato farmer Corné Smulders can’t praise the Intense highly enough: “This is a very special tomato because it retains its juice even when you squeeze it. That makes it ideal for fast-food chains, where the last thing you want is a tomato slice that turns your sandwich or burger soggy.” Smulders began growing the Intense in 2008. It is now a permanent feature of the range of high-grade tomato varieties that he produces in greenhouses on about three hectares of land on his farm close to Eindhoven.
In North West Europe Intense tomatoes are always grown in greenhouses. This method of cultivation has the advantage of allowing farmers to grow and breed their crops under optimized, standardized conditions. It also makes it easier to protect the plants from pests and bad weather. These benefits have also convinced producers in sunny Mexico, which has recently begun to see a steady rise in the number of tomatoes being grown in greenhouses. Within the space of just a few years, the surface area covered
The last thing you want is a tomato slice that turns your sandwich or burger soggy.
by tomato greenhouses has risen from almost zero to over 10,000 hectares – that’s ten times more than in the Netherlands. Harvests in some regions have increased from an average of 50 tons per hectare to between 250 and 600 tons. “And it’s not just the yields that have improved; the quality of the tomatoes has too. They taste better, they’re firmer and larger, and they look better,” says Ricardo Ramos, crop sales manager Protected Crops for the Bayer Vegetable Seeds Business in North America.
Another advantage of greenhouses is that the water used for irrigation doesn’t evaporate as it would out in the open. Although farms in hot regions now use automatically controlled drip irrigation systems on their open-air fields, they still can’t reuse the water. In a greenhouse, though, the water use is more efficient. Many growers collect rainwater, filter, disinfect it and pump it into their drip irrigation systems. Liquid that seeps into the beds is collected, recycled and fed in the system, too. Additional water savings are possible by condensation of the water evaporated by the plants. The high-tech systems that make this possible are also impressive – even if not every greenhouse has robots whizzing around harvesting tomatoes.