Interview with Alessio Orlandi Sales Manager of FRI-EL Greenhouse. FRI-EL/FRESH GURU CASE STORY

Phoresta / Interviews  / Interview with Alessio Orlandi Sales Manager of FRI-EL Greenhouse. FRI-EL/FRESH GURU CASE STORY

 

  • Q: What is the origin of Fresh Guru?

 

R: Fresh Guru is part of a group called FRI-EL Green Power owned by the Gostner family that owns several plants for the production of clean energy: 13 hydroelectric power plants, 32 wind farms, 24 biogas plants. Methane is produced from the fermentation of organic biomass (corn) and is used as a fuel to heat water that will run turbines and generate electricity. One of the waste products of this process is free and clean hot water.

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How to use this source of energy? The three brothers had the idea of ​​using it to warm greenhouses and produce tomatoes. The first pilot plant of 1.6 ha was built in Crevalcore (BO) where tomato cultivation was tested. Between 2015 and 2017 we built two greenhouses of 5.4 hectares each in Ostellato (RA), near pre-existing biogas plants. Our goal is now to double the cultivated area. With our current biogas production we can think of reaching 200 ha of cultivated area.

 

  • Q: Where are you going to sell your products?

 

R: More than half of our production will be sold in Germany and Austria. Although at the beginning our idea was very different. We thought of selling mainly in Italy, because every year we import 130,000 tons of tomatoes from Spain, Holland and Morocco (ISMEA data) and we intended to start filling the gap in our domestic market.

 

  • Q: Which are the strongest competitors of Italy for the tomato market?

 

R: In quantitative terms, the main competitors are Spain and the Netherlands, because Italy is abandoning the cultivation of vine tomatoes and is gradually specializing in premium products.

 

  • Q: What are the strengths of your company?

 

R: We can provide fresh product with the same quality standard 365 days a year. In addition, thanks to our strategic position, we can deliver tomatoes with at least two days of transport less than those from southern Italy and Spain, which means two more days of shelf life at the supermarkets.

 

  • Q: Your company was also awarded important environmental certifications, may you tell us more about it?

 

R: We recently got two certifications from the CSQA (NDR Agri-food Certification Company and the first Italian organization accredited in the agri-food sector), the “Water Footprint” and the “Climate Change Evaluation”.

The first one certifies the impact on water of a production cycle, in terms of consumption and pollution. With our cultivation system we can save up to 60-70% of water compared to traditional field cultivations. In fact, the water that the plants don’t absorb is collected, filtered and reused. We don’t alter the groundwater level because our water comes only from rainwater collection basins. Thanks to these systems we are self-sufficient even in periods of prolonged drought, as it was in December 2018.

Even the fertilizers are measured and only the required amount is used, nothing is poured into the environment.

We don’t use pesticides, except in cases of extreme necessity, because we are in a protected environment where no insect can enter. We don’t have weeds because we cultivate on artificial soil, so we don’t need herbicides. This also removes the drift, that phenomenon for which a chemical product is transported by wind or water in the ecosystem. We don’t treat with fungicides because the humidity of the environment is controlled and the pathogenic fungi cannot develop. In short, no chemicals go out of our greenhouses.

 

  • Q: And what about the “Climate Change” certification?

 

 

R: It evaluates the amount of CO2 emissions of the entire production chain. We also significantly reduce CO2 emissions because the entire production of our biogas plants is fed into our greenhouses and used by our vegetables.

 

 

  • Q: Why do you keep CO2 in the greenhouse? Is it for the vegetables?

 

 

R: It is their fuel. Without it they couldn’t make the photosynthesis and therefore grow and produce fruit. Due to the density of plants in our greenhouses we must give them CO2 to make them grow and produce normally. Tomatoes couldn’t grow in open field with this level of density. We use the CO2 that we produce, otherwise we should buy CO2 cylinders. Another example of circular economy.

We have also been included by ISMEA in the Italian Atlas of circular economy. It is a portal where companies and citizens can find enterprises that apply the principles of the circular economy. It is a tool meant to raise consumer awareness and guide them towards a more sustainable market.

 

  • Q: And what about the consumption of electricity? There are LED lights in your greenhouses.

 

R: They are special LEDs developed by a company called C-LED in collaboration with the Bologna University. Their running time is based on the daily amount of sunlight, so there is no risk of keeping them running longer than necessary. All the energy they produce is absorbed by the plants, because they emit only the wavelengths that the plant can absorb. No energy waste.

 

  • Q: Your company grows tomatoes in hydroponics, may you explain this kind of  technique?

 

R: Hydroponics is a type of cultivation that replaces natural soil with artificial soil on which the plants are grown. Such as: vermiculite, coconut fiber, rock wool or zeolite. In our company we use rock wool, a completely inert material obtained from rocks.

 

  • Q: What is the useful life of rock wool?

 

R: It has no expiry date and can be used over and over again. We change it at the end of each production cycle, that means every 10 months.

 

  • Q: Without soil there are no problems related to its management.

 

 

R: Yes, indeed the herbicides and nematocides have been eliminated from our production cycle.

 

 

  • Q: Do you produce your tomato seedlings?

 

R: No, we rely on Dutch nurseries, that produce seedlings certified for the absence of viral diseases.

 

  • Q: In short, you are real biological producer…

 

R: Right! Just think that we can use bumblebees to pollinate tomato flowers. In other greenhouses this operation is carried out mechanically, because pollinating insects are extremely sensible to chemicals and cannot survive. And here comes the mockery: although we are an organic farm in all respects, we cannot get the bio certification, because it is meant only for cultivation on natural soils. Even if our environment and our products are very healthy and the impact on the environment is practically zero.

Thanks a lot to Alessio Orlando who explained many things about hydroponic cultivation. We will certainly talk again of these issues in the near future.