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Italy: 11 hectare hydroponic greenhouse in Ferrara

An 11 hectare complex with a processing and packaging warehouse at its centre. Tomatoes available 12 months a year thanks to the heating provided by the biogas plant nearby. This facility started operating a couple of months ago and harvesting is already underway. Dutch technology was used to build it.

The greenhouse in Ostellato (Ferrara)

The greenhouse was developed by Fri-El, a Bolzano company that had already designed a smaller one (just under three hectares) in Crevalcore.

Luca Vincenzi and Marco Manganelli

"The greenhouse is heated with the energy produced by the biogas plant. Currently the average temperature during the day is 20°C with a relative humidity of 75%. Tomato plants can grow up to 13-20 cm a day," explain managers Marco Manganelli and Luca Vincenzi.

Alessio Orlandi, FreshGuru sales manager as of January 2018

We toured the facility together with sales manager Alessio Orlandi. It already employs 100 people and is expected to employ over 200 when it becomes fully operational. Many technicians such as Vincenzi and Manganelli have moved to the area specifically for this job, meaning the rental market has been thriving. Some are even considering buying a house. This in turn means that agriculture can bring benefits to the entire territory in addition to just the economy.

One of the basins collecting water

The facility is located on a plain and there is plenty of room to expand. A large basin to collect rainwater can be noticed before the entrance and there are many more, one for each greenhouse block. Once in, you are flooded by light, as the maximum height reaches 8 metres. The office corridor and meeting room overlook the greenhouse and are very bright. Shoes must be cleaned with disinfecting brushes before going in.

The rail between tomato rows used for harvesting carts 

While the outside temperature is 5°C, it is 22°C in the greenhouses. The roots grow in mineral wool and are irrigated with a water and mineral solution. This is still the first cycle, then the substrate will be replaced to prevent the development of diseases.

Photo taken from above the plants. Notice the red and blue LEDs and the hooks supporting the plants

Plants are arranged in rows and supported by wires. Most of the ground is cemented and a rail is placed between rows for harvesting carts, which are hydraulic and can be lifted to harvest from the higher rows.

Photo taken from above

LED lights supplement natural light, especially in winter (also because the area is often foggy). Operators must wear protective glasses in the morning and evening not to strain the eyes.

The produce is packaged directly in the greenhouse

"Pollination is facilitated by bumblebees and there is a wireless closing system to make sure they don't fly around when it's dark, as they would get disoriented and die. Biological control is carried out with beneficial insects. Organic cultivation techniques are used even though, according to standards, only soil crops can be certified as organic. Anyway no chemicals are used."

Bioplanet containers with bumblebees. A wireless system opens and closes them automatically. 

The environment is tidy, technologically advanced and conveys a sense of calmness. There is also a music system and shading films can be opened in summer.

Device to strengthen branches and prevent them being ruined by the weight of bunches.

"We're doing things one step at a time, but we are aware we can supply uniform quality and quantity. We have what it takes to talk to the main distributors in Europe. In the future, we will also be able to make preliminary agreements and start growing other products."

Fri-El Greenhouse
Alessio Orlandi - sales manager

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