User-friendly control system for irrigation and ventilation HortiMaX CX500 results in best crop ever

Mexican grower, Agrícola Oliveros, produces high quality specialty grape tomatoes mostly for the US market. It has 10 hectares of poly greenhouses and will soon expand by another five hectares. In 2014 it installed a HortiMaX CX500 climate control computer to automate the climate and irrigation systems. Owner Ernesto Oliveros says it revolutionized the irrigation system which is now based on the level of solar radiation. Another breakthrough was the ability to control and increase the relative humidity which reduced the problem of green shoulders on the fruit. As well as improving quality, this year the yield was the best ever. The user-friendliness of the CX500 has also been a bonus.

Mexican grower, Agrícola Oliveros, started growing tomatoes in 2002 and, on the basis of trial and error, has been growing slowly but steadily ever since. It now produces high quality specialty grape tomatoes mostly for the US market. Having expanded to 15 hectares, and with the groundwork laid for another 23 hectares, the owners decided it was time to move with the times and introduce technology to automate the climate and irrigation systems. With that in place, this year the harvest was the best ever.

The Oliveros family has owned the property in Celaya for 60 years and today it is run by Ernesto (and his brother Jose Maria). It was first farmed by their grandfather and later by his father, who grew barley, sorghum and in the 1980s vegetables, such as broccoli. Drip irrigation was introduced in the late 1990s and at the beginning of the 21st century Ernesto and Jose Maria were curious to find out how greenhouses performed. In 2001 they set up a trial poly greenhouse of 0.25 ha and successfully managed to grow a tomato crop.

“Our initial goal was simply to ensure that the plants survived. It was trial and error and with help via the Internet we managed to achieve the right nutrient solutions and temperature regimes etc. We were growing beef tomatoes and found a market for them in Mexico City. That encouraged us to expand further, by half a hectare, one hectare, two hectares until in 2013 we had a poly greenhouse of 10 hectares and were exporting specialty grape tomatoes to the USA and Canada,” says Ernesto.

Hesitant at first
On 2014Last year they built an additional five hectares and it was at that stage they decided to automate the irrigation and ventilation systems. “We had so many people running around pushing buttons to open the vents it wasn’t sensible anymore.” However, Ernesto admits they were very sceptical about technology. “We didn’t really trust the systems; we felt that if something went wrong all would be lost because we wouldn’t be able to fix a problem quickly enough.”

Nevertheless, they started talking to HortiMaX which has an office nearby. “It was important for me to meet the people, in this case HortiMaX Mexico. I needed to feel I could trust them, just in case things did go wrong.”

“We liked the CX500 climate control system because it is easy to import and download files. The user friendliness of the system was also attractive. The visual part of the interface is straightforward so people can easily pick out the data they require. Everyone here has become very receptive to the new technology. Many people have been here for ten years and we all want to improve together so we pay attention to detail. This system helps us do that.”

A big breakthrough has been the ability to control and increase the relative humidity. This has dramatically reduced the incidence of green shoulders on the fruits, says Ernesto. Green shoulders were a huge issue, affecting around 40% of produce, because the weather in spring is very warm, about 35-40°C, and very dry.

“The relative humidity outside can be 10-20% which sucks the moisture out of the greenhouse so the leaves become shorter and some of the fruits fail to ripen properly. If the tomatoes have green shoulders you simply don’t get paid,” he says.

“Now that we can more accurately control the opening of the vents, the irrigation and by using the correct amount of white wash we can keep the humidity in the greenhouse at nearly 60%, compared with 30-40% in the past.” The incidence of green shoulders dropped to 6% this year, which was helped by them using a variety that is less susceptible to the problem.

The main variety grown is Angelle, by Syngenta, but Oliveros also sells a medley mix and therefore grow five varieties in one greenhouse. These are grown without any additional heating in a cocopeat substrate. “This year we had the best yield ever reaching over 25kg/m2 but really, quality is much more important to us,” says Ernesto.

Irrigation based on light levels
“In this respect the CX500 climate and irrigation computer has been a real game changer. It has revolutionized the way we irrigate because we now water based on radiation. “We can even manage separate areas of the greenhouse with just a small overlap between one or two rows. The crop stays drier in the morning and we can better control the irrigation cycles based on the variety and age of the crop; we start watering a young crop at a higher level of radiation than the older crop.”

This ability to accurately manage the crop has also improved the Brix level in the fruits. “The grape tomatoes need to have a high Brix level yet the level achievable does vary throughout the year. One of our biggest challenges is the weather and this climate control system gives us well balance with which to control production more accurately and maintain a very generative plant. By better managing the humidity and by maintaining a higher EC in the substrate we have been able to optimise and improve the Brix level this year.”
Best yield so far
Oliveros has been exporting into the North American market via Canadian marketers, Mastronardi Produce, since 2005. “Exporting requires the highest level of quality and this is what has allowed us to keep expanding. After installing the HortiMaX CX500 climate and irrigation computer we had the best crop ever, our highest yield in history. The new system, and all the attention we pay to detail, certainly helped us to achieve that. We are now in the process of expanding by another five hectares and the goal is to grow to 40 ha in total. “As we grow we will be able to customize and simply add more modules to the climate control system,” says Ernesto.

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