In Latin American countries like Chile, there is an increasing interest in learning about hydroponics and the solutions it can offer to agriculture in the region.
Feature by CHRISTINE BROWN-PAUL Photography by SAM ROSS
Hydroponics first came to Latin America during the 1970s. At the outset, it was used to market vegetables considered luxury items. By the mid-1980s, hydroponic farming began to be a popular alternative among the very poorest, who adopted the practice in the hillside slums surrounding most large Latin American cities.
The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) promoted hydroponic farming both to satisfy the basic food needs of the disadvantaged in the urban areas and to offer them an economic alternative.
Following notable successes in Chile, Venezuela and Colombia, among other countries, hydroponic farming came to Nicaragua in 1993 with César Marulanda, a UNDP official who had been working in hydroponic farming in his native Colombia and other Latin American countries for over 10 years.
Marulanda’s first experience in Nicaragua was disheartening. The people who most needed to grow vegetables using hydroponic methods simply refused to try.
“But, do you realise how much land we have in Nicaragua?” was the frequent question.
“Why should we get into farming without soil, if that’s one thing we have plenty of?”
Marulanda’s response was: “That’s true, but how much of that land is yours?”
Today, hydroponics is increasing in popularity in many Latin American countries.
In the abstract to his paper, Advances of Hydroponics in Latin America, author A. Rodríguez-Delfín states that the future of hydroponics in Latin America will much depend on the development and adaptation of less sophisticated commercial systems. These have to be cost competitive with respect to the highly sophisticated technology generated and used in developed countries, using natural and local substrates, developing native or endemic crops of the region with economical potential for its high feed or medicinal value, among others.
“There are no official statistics on the evolution of the state of hydroponic culture in Latin America,” writes Mr Rodríguez-Delfín.
“The main hydroponic systems used are the drip irrigation and NFT system.
“According to their profits, the main hydroponic crops are lettuce, tomato, pepper and strawberry. In Andean countries like Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador, aeroponics is being developed to obtain basic potato tuber seed, free of virus.”
He goes on to say that the use of rockwool is not generalised in the region, but in countries like Mexico and Chile it is mainly used in tomato crops with drip irrigation system.
As the author also points out, there is an increasing interest in learning about hydroponics and the solutions it can offer to agriculture in the region.
“The area of soilless culture is increasing in the region and every day there is much interest to larn and to dominate this technique of plant production without using soil. A great number of international courses, seminaries, congresses and symposia organised in countries like Peru, Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica and Chile demonstrate this affirmation.”
Bringing the desert to life
South of the Peru–Chile border and covering a 1000-kilometre strip of land on the Pacific coast, west of the Andes mountains, the Atacama Desert is the driest hot desert in the world. The Atacama occupies 105,000 square kilometres, composed mostly of salt lakes (salares), sand, and felsic lava flows towards the Andes. With its arid landscape, the region has little sign of vegetation and minimal rainfall.
In 2011, this region was the focus for an initiative by the Chilean Foundation for Agricultural Innovation (FIA) to promote clean, sustainable agriculture across 100 acres, using hydroponic technology.
The program involved over 100 fruit and vegetable growers who were encouraged to use hydroponic techniques to grow baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.
Tests were initially carried out on pilot crops with technology developed in collaboration with the local farmers. According to FIA project researcher, Carla Pesca, development focused on creating clean production to establish food alternatives and good agricultural practices, including postharvest and packing.
The first installations were made in La Chima where researchers were able to identify critical areas of need, such as the quantity and quality of water used, as well as the safety and effectiveness of the products.
Other areas looked at by the research team included improving waste disposal and composting.
Results have been promising with the first hydroponic products sold in Antofagasta. Other cities such as Calama and Tocopilla are now also receiving the hydroponic produce.
Hydroponic lettuce in La Cruz
Located in the Valparaiso region of Chile, the Hidroponicos La Cruz company is conveniently situated near La Cruz—an area known for its prominent fruit production and often referred to as the ‘National Avocado Capital’. Nestled between the many avocado and citrus tree groves is Hidroponicos La Cruz’s hydroponic lettuce production greenhouse.
Hidroponicos La Cruz produces high quality lettuce varieties sold in supermarkets throughout Chile under the company’s ‘Pura Hoja’ brand. The company’s 18,000-square metre greenhouse, built with the latest technology, is run by the operation’s general manager, Victor Ulloa, who ensures that production processes conform to the highest efficiency and sustainability standards.
The region’s climate, while relatively mild, does not come without challenges and Mr Ulloa says that growing light intensity is an issue.
“During the summer of 2012, high intensity light levels created an adverse effect on the plants, which translated into significant quality losses,” Mr Ulloa said.
“In this region, it’s normal to see radiation peaks up to 3000 joules/day with 14-15 hour days throughout the summer season.”
Hidroponicos La Cruz found the solution to its intense light and temperature problems by using shade screens from Swedish company, Svensson, a brand within the Ludvig Svensson group. All horticultural fabrics are made at the company’s factories in Kinna, Sweden, or in Qingpu, China, where the family Ludvigson has been developing and producing textiles for over 120 years.
“I knew about Svensson products because I use them in our tomato greenhouses and the first thing that came to mind when we considered expanding last winter was to install an open SLS 50 F Harmony shade screen to improve the climate condition and to reduce the stress level on the plants,” Mr Ulloa said.
“Today, we can say that the greenhouse climate is much better and the quality of the product we’re harvesting has improved tremendously. We’ve seen a significant drop in water temperatures circulating on the crop, helping to lower the risk of sanitary problems at the root level. As we continue to learn new and more effective ways of using the screen, we’re confident that we made the right decision.”
Berry good in Chile
Chile is a country, which boasts natural phytosanitary advantages for agricultural production and an ideal climate for growing berries. Isolated by the Atacama Desert to the North, the Antarctic Territory to the South, the Andes Mountains to the East and the Pacific Ocean to the West, Chile is protected from many pests and diseases, which affect berry cultivation in other regions such as Xantomonas and Antracnosis.
Chile is currently the primary source of raspberry imports into Australia, accounting for 64% of the total processed imports.
According to NSW Agriculture, generally speaking, most growers consider raspberries (Rubus idaeus) as difficult plants to grow hydroponically, as they are long-term plants that, depending on type of raspberry plant, may not produce any fruit in the first year.
“Raspberries cannot be grown in the subtropics or tropics, due to their perennial nature. However, the crop is high value and a soilless, hydroponic production system represents a way to increase crop diversity, while maintaining an environmentally sound production scheme,” said a NSW Agriculture spokesperson.
“In Australia, local Australian raspberry production was 1057 tonnes for the year ending 2011. This was supplemented with a further 5138 tonnes of imported product. The vast majority of imported raspberries into our country are in a frozen or pulped form, with very little in a fresh form. Additionally, raspberries are also imported in a mixed berry form where they are combined with other berries, for example, blackberries, mulberries, loganberries, currants and gooseberries.”
In the US, raspberries continue to rank as the third most popular berry for fresh use, after strawberries and blueberries. Raspberries come in red, black, purple and yellow varieties. Summer-bearing varieties produce one crop between July and August. Autumn-bearing raspberries grow a large crop in the fall and a small crop the following summer. Since 1997, the US has been among the six countries with the greatest cultivation of raspberry and the highest yields per hectare.
Although the United States is the third largest raspberry producer in the world, only 15% of its domestic demand for raspberry fruit is met by production in the US. With no real large producers of out-of-season raspberries, most imports are from Canada during July and August, and from Mexico and Chile during November through May.
This of course means that long travelling distances push up market costs for the fruit, however, despite this, people are still willing to pay these higher prices. During the off-season, for example, raspberries can sell for between USD$3 and USD$6 for a 1/2 pint (typically, they sell for around USD$3 or more when they are in season).
The raspberry harvest season is well defined and the perishability of the fruit limits postharvest storage. Because they are a highly perishable product, there is always a demand for fresh, locally grown high-quality raspberries.
Blue ribbon blueberries
Chilean blueberries are also in popular demand in the States and elsewhere with harvests concentrated in two regions located in the southern and south central zone of Chile.
However, according to the Chilean Blueberry Committee, last year’s Chilean blueberry season was affected by a port strike, frosts in September and the pest, Lobesia Botrana or European Grapevine Moth. Sales to the US, its main market, therefore decreased. However, there was an increase in shipments to Europe and Asia and a significant rise in prices.
“This season was first affected by the frosts in September, which made us change our production estimates by 10%,” said Andres Armstrong, manager of the Chilean Blueberry Committee.
The US Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has announced that Chilean blueberry exports will need to be fumigated because of the threat from Lobesia Botrana. The Chilean Ministry of Agriculture has indicated that new measures would include methyl bromide fumigation treatment at origin at field temperature, along with increased inspections on arrival.
“The national industry has been doing tests to simulate protocols of fumigation at origin and also at destination, to ensure that the quality and condition of fruit that arrives in destination markets continues to be optimal,” said Andres Armstrong who added that fruit already authorisd by the USDA before the emergency measures would continue its normal transit to the US, but on arrival would be subject to greater inspection.
According to official estimates, the international outlook for Chilean blueberries, as well as their participation in target markets, has changed considerably. Chile has taken on the role of the leading exporter of this fruit, which is becoming the star of Chilean foreign sales, especially since the opening of the Chinese and Korean markets.
So far, new markets have grown 14% (Europe) and 30% (Asia). To date, the US and Canada concentrate 67% of exports, Europe 24% and Asia 9%.
In terms of challenges in 2014, Mr Armstrong said that the first thing the country had to do was to adopt a new strategy to combat Lobesia Botrana.
“We also have work to do in gradually releasing quarantined areas, as they represent more than 70% of Chile’s productive potential,” Mr Armstrong said.
“We must continue working on the quality and image of our blueberries. We must also continue to work on promotion and market development. This season showed the importance of having alternative markets.”
One Chilean company noted for its hydroponically grown berries is ROBSONBerries. The company specialises in the production and export of hydroponically grown blueberries and other soil-grown berries such as strawberries, raspberries, cranberries, bilberries as well as currants and other exotics.
General Manager and founder of ROBSONBerries is agronomist Marcela Jofre who, together with her husband, used to head a forestry operation.
“Our hydroponic blueberry production is developed in Fundo San Florencio, located in Camino La Mancha, two kilometres from Monte Aguila, in the neighbourhoods of Cabrero and Los Angeles, VIII Region, in the central-south zone in Chile,” Ms Jofre said.
“Our main target for our hydroponic blueberries is the US where we specialise in the delivery of value-added products.
“To succeed in the international market requires advanced technology, innovation and differentiation of product offering. We are looking at expanding our business into Europe and Asia,” she said.
Last season, blueberry shipments for the company totalled 21,129 tonnes, an increase of 46% compared to the previous season.
ROBSONBerries runs its own nurseries, which have the capacity to produce 600,000plants per year.
“We produce plants from cuttings and in vitro under very strict international standards,” Ms Jofre said.
“Our blueberry nursery is accredited by the Servicio Agricola y Ganadero (SAG), which is Chile’s official phytosanitary institution.
“We use disinfected substrate in all production stages of the plants,” she said.
“In winter, the nursery plants are harvested then conserved in cold storage for around eight months, to be planted during the summer.
“During this period, the plants’ metabolism is lowered to the minimum so that come summer, they have plenty of carbohydrates in reserve to flourish,” Ms Jofre said.
The company has many different varieties of blueberry, including ‘O’Neal’, ‘Duke’, ‘Bluecrop’, ‘Brigitta Blue’,‘Tifblue’ and ‘Brightwell’.
“At ROBSONBerries, we use advanced hydroponic technology and all processing is done on high tables, avoiding the need for the product to touch the floor and potentially become polluted,” Ms Jofre said.
“Our fruit is harvested by hand and selected and packed with care so that the product always arrives in good condition for the consumer. We pride ourselves on always ensuring the consistently good quality of our products.”
About the author
Christine Brown-Paul is a Sydney-based journalist and a regular contributor to PH&G, with a special interest in the environment and sustainable technology. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
PH&G April 2014 / Issue 142