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In the Silicon Valley of agriculture


In the Netherlands, researchers at Wageningen University are developing the greenhouse of the future. In times of global warming and labor shortages, they rely on sustainable, automated agriculture.

By Hendrike Brenninkmeyer and Matthias Ebert, SWR

Shortly after sunrise, the suburbs of Rotterdam glow pink. Greenhouses are lined up for kilometers next to the highway that leads to the port. The artificial light that shimmers from inside creates an almost ghostly atmosphere around the morning rush hour.

In addition to countless commercial companies that grow peppers, cucumbers and salads for large supermarket chains, Wageningen University is researching the greenhouse of the future here in Bleiswijk. The institute is considered worldwide as a kind of “Silicon Valley of agriculture” – the most important agricultural research facility in the world.

Water recycling in cultivation

Frank Kempkes is up early. He steers his gray bike between two greenhouses towards strawberry farming. As an energy specialist, the agricultural engineer is researching sustainable, CO2-neutral greenhouses.

In order to achieve this goal, Kempkes and his colleagues have to make many adjustments. When it comes to strawberries, you immediately notice the countless white tubes running underneath the plants. Next to it, water drips from the breeding pots into black containers.

The aim is to recycle as much water as possible in a kind of cycle. It is collected and used again – including the moisture that evaporates. “The biggest challenge is: How can we reduce the evaporation of water?” explains Kempkes. “In the greenhouse we try to create the ideal temperature and humidity for each variety so that less water is lost.”

High-tech and precision

The strawberries shine bright red – hanging heavy and bulging downwards. Their breeding ground consists of soil and coconut fibers. The special varieties bear fruit significantly longer than conventional ones. The season here lasts eight months because new fruits continue to grow alongside the ripe ones, enabling a continuous harvest.

Efficiency is very important in the Netherlands: nowhere else in the world does a country achieve more yield per area. According to Kempkes, optimizing this further can only be done with high-tech and precision agriculture.

He shows what that means next door, where cucumbers grow like in a jungle. They root in rock wool, are grown with a nutrient solution and drag their coiled tendrils through the rows for many meters. Kempkes now harvests 270 cucumbers per year from one square meter here.

Heat pumps and “smart glass”

This yield is also made possible by fully automated technology, in which so-called “smart glass” distributes the sunlight better across all plants and a climate control computer can extend three different insulating films under the glass roof. Additionally, CO2 is introduced to accelerate growth.

However, the energy question is crucial for the climate-neutral greenhouse of the future, explains Kempkes. “We need to drastically reduce energy consumption and use climate-friendly heat pumps to achieve this goal.” Heat pumps can both heat the greenhouse in winter and help regulate humidity.

Robots replace harvest workers

One greenhouse away, countless gerberas are blooming under artificial LED light in high humidity and 18 degrees. The peace and quiet here is only disturbed by the quiet squeaking of a robot. It rolls through the rows of closely spaced flowers and, thanks to AI-powered software, captures each of them faster than the human eye to predict what the harvest yield will be.

The research into harvesting robots is partly financed by the Dutch Association of Flower Growers. They hope for increasing commercial use of robots in greenhouses because they expect a growing shortage of skilled workers in agriculture.

“I hope that we make great progress in robotization,” Kempkes explains to the ARD European magazine. “In 2040, harvesting in modern greenhouses will probably be largely automated.” According to Kempkes, fewer and fewer workers will also be needed in the fields. “What matters is whether fully automated cultivation will be profitable.”

Fully automated harvest helpers: Robots tend and care for the gerberas under optimal conditions.

Everything depends on power consumption away

The Danish start-up Nordic Harvest is currently growing mint, basil, rocket and young spinach in its indoor farm in Copenhagen on 14 floors. Restaurants and supermarkets are among the customers. Whether they find additional investors to build more greenhouses also depends on whether they can operate profitably in the long term.

The energy consumption of indoor farms is comparatively high, which has a direct impact on food prices. In 2023, the Dutch subsidiary of the start-up Infarm had to file for bankruptcy due to increased energy prices.

At Wageningen University, researcher Kempkes still believes in the long-term success of modern greenhouses. Next to him, a harvesting robot stops in the middle of the sea of ​​gerbera flowers. The white gripper arm delicately grasps the flower, while a rail at the bottom cuts off the stem. Technically, harvesting is no longer a problem. What is unclear is whether it will also be economically worthwhile in the future.

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