Innovation And Investment Are The Keys To Success

Rafael Moya Gonzalez

In the early 1960s, certain zones in the south of Spain developed into what we call “the sea of plastic.” This vast extension of greenhouses covers nearly 350 square kilometers and can be confused with the sea when the sun reflects off their plastic surfaces. Within years of increasing the area dedicated to intensive crops, Campo de Dalias, Almería, became famous for its production of vegetables, with a total business of $1.5 billion a year.

From Fruit To Flowers

On the other side of Andalusia, in the province of Cádiz, the tourist village of Chipiona produced its own revolution. In the 1970s, most of the farmers there successfully moved from strawberry and tomato production to carnations, eventually exporting millions and millions of flowers all over the world. The climate — with mild winters, warm summers and moderate winds — made it easy to grow plants. Water was not a problem either, since the Guadalquivir, the biggest river in the south of Spain, passes close to the town. Chipiona rapidly gained recognition for both the quality and the quantity of its flowers.

The Current Situation

But that’s the past. Investment in horticulture lagged, and
during the 1980s and 1990s, the town turned into a vacation village, especially for people from the nearby city of Seville. The decline of Chipiona is evident nowadays in its aging facilities and lack of infrastructure.

As part of my university studies, I had the opportunity to do an internship in that area, in one of the regional government’s experimental stations for studies in agriculture, the Center of Information and Training in Andalusia (CIFA, from its initials in Spanish). Ever since I started college, I had wanted to focus my career on horticulture, but because I grew up in a city, I hadn’t had much contact with agriculture. Arriving at the CIFA facility, I could see what such a career would mean. I toured the labs my first day there and was surprised that everything was so quiet. Of course it was summer and most of the staff was on vacation, but plants don’t know what a vacation is.  

The greenhouse we saw last was a permanent structure focused on the production of Strelitzia reginae. This structure surprised me. It was made of wood and plastic — not something that you would expect to see in a modern government facility. They told me that they had kept it due to its historical value. However, when we toured the area near the CIFA facility, I discovered that the CIFA greenhouse was not just a historic artifact. Many greenhouses in the area were still built in the same way. The owners told me it was not necessary for them to improve their facilities because they weren’t making enough money to justify a new investment.

Interning At Green Circle Growers

Ten months ago I arrived in the United States, and from the first moment I stepped into the facilities of Green Circle Growers (GCG), where I’m doing my internship, the way I viewed horticulture changed forever. I no longer saw it as a modest business. I started to understand that through innovation and investment it could be profitable on a large scale. That is what we need in Spain.

Instead of steel structures, most of the greenhouses in Chipiona are made of wood. We use plastic instead of glass, which makes the initial investment cheaper, but also means that the materials have to be replaced more often. Glass is more durable, and it doesn’t lose its translucency over time. Watering in Chipiona still has to be done manually, through sprinklers, flooding floors or by hand. We don’t have the overhead booms that they use every day at GCG. Climate controls, such as the PRIVA system, are unheard of. Vents need to be operated manually in most cases.

Innovation Helps Increase Profits

A good structure is the beginning. After that, better control of the environment is crucial to quality: automatic vents to control the temperature, fans to improve the air circulation, sensors to monitor conditions inside of the greenhouses. We also need to invest in a better system of irrigation, including construction of ponds to maximize the harvesting of rainwater and recycled water.

Above all, we need a new approach to the businesses of horticulture, thinking not only about the present but also about the future. Only the most successful companies in the sector have implemented even a modest amount of technology. The owners of these firms are businessmen who understood what long-term success requires.

Quality Trumps Quantity

The old days, when quantity was all that mattered, are long past. Now the market demands quality, and we need to be able to satisfy that demand. An article in a local newspaper from Spain says that production in the cut flower market in Chipiona has been reduced by 50 percent in the past few years and that this decline is likely to continue.

As Jesús Calderón, the secretary of the Flower Association of Chipiona, says in the article, the area grew so fast that farmers didn’t have time to organize production so that they would be able to maintain their market share. This was due to classic opportunism: when we see a successful business everybody wants to participate in it, he says.

In this case, the only goal for the farmers was to maximize production, and they forgot about quality. This is a self-perpetuating cycle. Without innovation and investment, the quality of the product is compromised, and with a poor-quality, product prices drop, which has a direct impact on profits. Low profits may make farmers move to other crops or even abandon their greenhouses and look for jobs in different fields, which has, in fact, happened in Spain.

Look Abroad For Examples

Using the U.S. and the Netherlands as models for the adoption of more advanced technology and an improvement in our business plan, won’t solve anything by itself. It’s only a first step. Nowadays, because we are living in a globalized market, borders no longer exist. The same flower can be cut here today and be in a shop on the other side of the world tomorrow.

Spain’s true competitors now are countries with better conditions for growing plants, with optimal climate and a cheap workforce in countries like Kenya, Colombia and Turkey. Colombia alone sends approximately 35 cargo planes full of cut flowers to the U.S. daily, which contributes $900 million to that country’s gross domestic product.

We probably can’t compete with these countries on price. In order to make our products attractive, we need to be able to offer the same product with some distinction: “Made in Spain” or even “Made in Chipiona.” Our goal must be to try to make the growers think beyond Spain, in terms of exports, at the same time, we need customers recognizing our brands and where that product comes from.

Recently, many growers associations, along with local governments in the south of Spain, have begun working on a global plan that will try — through
different stimulus and regulations — to re-establish the market for locally grown flowers by making Chipiona the recognized label that it once was.

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