In the Netherlands, adjacent to BASF I Nunhems, BASF's vegetable seed company's greenhouses, a machine is harvesting heads of iceberg lettuce this week. To make that possible, a variety concept is under development.
This development fits entirely into the theme this vegetable seed company chose for week 39 this year: Mechanize and More. Labor availability is a growing problem. And where there are still people, skilled employees are increasingly lacking, points out Arushi Badola, Regional Crop Lead for, among others, lettuce. By developing lettuce varieties with an elongated 'neck,' Nunhems aims to provide a solution.
The company is currently doing trials with this, by far, largest lettuce crop with three engineering firms and at growers. "Iceberg lettuce accounts for 65% of lettuce grown in open fields," begins Arushi. That makes it the top crop to mechanize.
“We've managed to breed iceberg lettuce so you can harvest the heads like spinach." This week, at Nunhems, you can see how a machine from Italy's Ortomec cuts the heads neatly off at the neck so none of the head is lost.
The vegetable seed company expects to bring the first commercial varieties with those long necks to Southern European markets in the winter of 2024 or, at the latest, 2025. Early this year, the initial results of this development were presented to growers at Nunhems' research center in Murcia, Spain. "Introducing such varieties for northwestern Europe will take some more time," says Arushi.
Handy for humans and machines
BASF I Nunhems thinks switching to mechanized harvesting will be gradual since investing in such machines is considerable. "However, this innovation provides important advantages to growers who keep harvesting by hand. Less experienced workers can pick the heads much easier without damaging them. They can learn quickly where to cut off the heads."
The neck is at least two centimeters longer than on standard iceberg lettuce, allowing enough space from the ground to harvest the crop by machine. Those necks can be longer, but is that necessary? Also, if they become too long, the crop will be top-heavy, so the lettuce head ends up on the ground anyway. That is another advantage of the longer neck: the crop no longer lies on the ground. "That prevents things like fungal problems on the head's underside," Arushi explains.
Once harvested, the iceberg is the same as always for consumers. Research by the vegetable seed company shows that people are not eager for iceberg lettuce to change externally. "They're happy with the product as they know it." The elongated neck mainly makes it easier for the harvesting machine or picker and, thus, the grower.
In the greenhouse
Besides BASF I Nunhems' traditional strong presence in, among others, open-field leek and melon cultivation, the company is also increasingly represented in high-tech crops. That is according to Silvia Cifre, VP of Marketing and Sales, at the beginning of week 39 during a press conference.
Greenhouse lettuce cultivation, focusing on hydroponics, is undoubtedly one of those high-tech crops. "Growers who currently grow open-field lettuce are looking at expanding into greenhouse cultivation. With advice and our extensive portfolio of varieties, we're happy to help our customers through that transition," Arushi concludes.
Covered lettuce cultivation is also changing. Despite energy setbacks, there is still plenty of focus on multilayer lettuce cultivation. For Nunhems, that is not a special segment, but one in which it is conducting tests with growers with existing high-tech lettuce varieties.