China

The contracts for a new Chinese horticulture project have been signed. Dutch suppliers are to build a tomato and lettuce nursery near Beijing. The idea is not just to grow vegetables, but also to gather and share more horticulture knowledge.

Bird’s Nest
The companies behind the new greenhouse, the Beijing Urban Construction Group (BUCG) and its subsidiary (BUCG6), are known for a number of remarkable construction projects, like the impressive Bird’s Nest, the Beijing stadium used in the 2008 Olympics. The greenhouse will be in the same region: 80 kilometers outside the center of Beijing. “About an hour’s drive. So we can easily supply our customers with fresh produce,” says Dan Xu manager agricultural developments within the company. “Hopefully the greenhouse will be ready for use by the end of August or early September.”

The project comprises 2.2 hectares with tomatoes, 2,000 sq.m. of hydroponic lettuce and 2,000 sq.m. of young plants propagation. “When it’s done, we’ll have the entire tomato cycle in our own hands: from seed to tomato.”

Horticulture rookies
BUCG6 doesn’t have experience in horticulture. “We’ve looked at various industries for projects to expand our horizon. We’ve been researching horticulture for a few years now, and have already been to the Netherlands a couple of times. Chinese soil isn’t sufficient to continue feeding the growing population. If you want to guarantee production, quality and food safety, you need a greenhouse. That’s the only way to realize high yields with a limited amount of energy.”

“In winter, tomatoes and other vegetables are shipped from South China to the North. They’re expensive and the quality is not great, so there’s a gap in the market. However, growing greenhouse vegetables is not obvious in North China,” Dan says. “The air quality is bad in winter, with the smog blocking the rays of the sun. We can’t do it without illuminating.” And that’s not the only thing: it can get pretty cold too. “So we also need good heating, isolation materials and screens.”

Prins Group
This is all supplied turn-key by Dutch suppliers, headed by Prins Group. Stolze takes care of the heating installations, irrigation and computer systems and electricity. “We chose to cooperate with Prins Group since we’ve known each other for a long time. This partnership is built on trust. We talked a lot and extensively explained what we would need. Combined with the knowledge and experience from Prins Group, we were offered the right technical solutions,” says Dan. As general contractor for the design and construction, Prins Group is, together with partner Stolze, responsible for the technical aspects of the irrigation system, the screen installations and lighting. “This greenhouse will be the most advanced in China so far. Nearly everything comes from the Netherlands. Less than ten percent of what we need comes from China.”

The greenhouse has been adapted according to the circumstances in the region. “We get a lot of rain here in summer, for instance, so the gutters are larger than usual,” Dan explains. “Labor is a bit more tricky. In China, we hardly have well-educated horticulture staff. We don’t have anything like the Polish workers they have in Dutch greenhouses. For picking leaves, pruning, plugging and harvesting at speed we need people, who we need to educate ourselves. That’s why we need far more people than in the Dutch greenhouses - perhaps 25 instead of 10 - to get the job done. Hopefully it will be different in a few years’ time. That’s something we’ll have to consider in our calculations.”

Demo greenhouse
In addition to the production, the greenhouse will also be open to the public, with an 800 sq.m. demo greenhouse. “Suppliers like Prins Group, but also Svensson, Priva, Hortimax and Royal Brinkman, can show what they’ve got there,” Dan says. “We specifically aim at children and young people, to show them what goes on in horticulture and how important the industry is for the future. And we want to welcome people from Beijing and the surrounding region as well. By showing all the techniques from abroad, we want to gain their trust. Hopefully they will pay more for our tomatoes than for conventionally grown tomatoes as well then. And finally, Chinese growers are also welcome to discover the latest developments in the industry,” says Dan. “We want to take the lead in horticulture, and pave the way for the industry.”

The choice to have 2,000 m2 of lettuce was also prompted by the company’s inquisitive nature. “The consumption in cities is increasing, while supplies from North China are low in winter. And most of the lettuce comes from the open field or from Chinese solar greenhouses. If the weather takes a turn for the worse, there’s a high risk of crop loss. With our trial, we can see if there’s a potential market.”