Protect tomato plants and relish the safe and sweet results

written by IFCO SYSTEMS, 3rd November 2021, in Success Stories

What is the safest route to protect tomato plants from tomato viruses and pathogens? At Vitarom Neurath, it comes down to sustainable farming practices, rigorous hygiene controls and a highly skilled team of specialists (including an army of beneficial insects). Four passionate, self-described plant whisperers are pulling it all together: Owners and entrepreneurs Wilhelm Baum, Matthias Draek, Carsten Knodt, and Labinot Elshani.

Sweet, safe and sustainable crop production

Farming is often a family affair, and it’s not uncommon for successful operations to pass down through several generations. Wilhelm Baum, Matthias Draek, Carsten Knodt and Labinot Elshani are now operating with management from the third or fourth generation. In the case of Carsten Knodt, it was his great-grandfather who founded the business in 1940 in North Rhine-Westphalia, one of the most densely populated regions in Germany. His daughter, Jana Knodt, works closely alongside him, having clearly inherited the family’s farming genes and keen interest to improve and protect tomato plants and pepper plots.

When the partners founded Vitarom Neurath in 2010, their entrepreneurial spirit kicked in. And they took the business down a completely new route: Toward a sustainable farming operation, and, ultimately, into the largest producer of sweet tomatoes and peppers in the region. "We were one of the first in the industry to move away from fossil fuel to heat our greenhouses," Knodt explains.

"We felt it was unacceptable to use fossil fuel to produce tomatoes. Our goal was to reduce our carbon footprint, so we had to find a better way." They did. Since 2004, none of the company’s greenhouses are heated with fossil energy. From the outset, Vitarom Neurath significantly cut the farm’s energy requirements. "Reducing energy consumption meant that we could ensure less fuel would be needed in the long run," he adds.

How to reduce the carbon footprint of greenhouses

Today, Knodt’s pepper greenhouses in Tönisvorst are powered by carbon-neutral biomass from wood waste. In Neurath, an energy-efficient operation recovers and recycles the heat wasted by a neighboring combined heat and power system to heat the tomato greenhouses. This modern set-up pipes hot water, heated to 70°C (150°F) by the waste energy from the power plant, to the farm. This then keeps the temperature in the greenhouses at a stable 20°C (68°F). The ideal tepid temperature to protect tomato plants throughout even the coldest of German winters.

"Out of waste, we create heat," highlights Knodt. "By making use of energy and resources that were there anyway, we are closing the loop."

“Our primary goal is to provide tasty, aromatic tomatoes all-year round in a carbon-neutral manner”

Carsten Knodt

How to implement sustainable farming practices

Other sustainable farming practices at Neurath include the following:

  • Using rainwater from a roof the size of 22 football pitches to irrigate the plants.

  • Sterilizing the recycled water via a fully automated and energy-optimized UV-system, which cuts down on the need for fertilizers.

  • Selecting reusable packaging containers for the food supply chain to help reduce the farm’s overall environmental impact.

  • Installing solar panels and LEDs as part of a hybrid lighting system.

  • Fighting diseases with nonchemical, biological methods as far as possible.

  • Exploiting pesticide-free methods to protect tomato plants and keep crops healthy.

  • Using hidden armies of carefully selected beneficial insects instead of pesticides for pest management.

Knodt singles out the Macrolophus, a predatory plant bug, as his personal favorite. It helps control thrips and white flies, the nemeses of greenhouse production, and also potential vectors for tomato viruses. Bumblebees pollinate the tomato flowers. An efficient method, since the production yield at Neurath is in excess of seven thousand tonnes of tomatoes annually. Finally, what is the role of IT and automation in sustainable farming? A formidable array of computer technology optimizes the greenhouse environment over 16 hectares. An automated warehouse ensures the energy-efficient and timely delivery of produce to customers.

Although technology and science are crucial parts of the farming puzzle, Knodt believes that artificial intelligence and robots come second to skilled specialists on the ground. For this reason, Knodt takes very good care of his workforce. Irrespective of whether they are permanent employees or seasonal workers.

How to protect tomato plants from pathogens?

Given the sheer quantity of tomatoes that are harvested in Neurath, it should come as no surprise that Knodt is meticulous about safety and hygiene. Throughout all of his operations strict hygiene measures are directed at preventing the entry of plant pathogens – including any diseases, pests or tomato viruses – onto the farms.

It’s this attention to detail that protects the tomato plants.

Other German farms have not been so fortunate. Most notably, there were outbreaks of the infamous Tomato Brown Rugose Fruit Virus (ToBRFV) at a couple of sites in 2018. In the meantime, ToBRFV has been completely eradicated in Germany, but there have been recent cases in France and Switzerland. The threat of such a tomato virus outbreak therefore looms large over the European farming community. It is, without doubt, also a concern for Knodt.

"Hygiene is our highest priority across all stages of production," he says. "Right up to post-harvest produce handling, packing and storing. We cannot allow any pathogen to enter our facilities. It would be devastating for the business."

How IFCO RPCs ensure pathogen-free farming

As with all the production sites operated by the co-founders, Vitarom Neurath uses IFCO RPCs, among others, for all types of produce to supply various retailers in the region. Given IFCO’s commitment to the circular economy the IFCO pooling system fits nicely into their vision for sustainability. They also support their mission to keep the fresh farm produce pathogen free and the tomatoes safe from the dreaded ToBRFV.

Protecting tomato plants is just as important to IFCO as it is to Vitarom Neurath. Thanks to the rigorous testing and stringent hygiene processes, IFCO RPCs are as safe as new containers. Every IFCO RPC is cleaned accordingly to certified processes and strictly enforced hygiene standards that are the same globally.

IFCO RPCs can therefore play a pivotal role in protecting tomato plants from deadly diseases and tomato viruses. Pathogens that might be found in the food supply chain – including a broad spectrum of bacteria, viruses, yeast and molds – do not stand a chance against the antimicrobial detergents and disinfectants used in the IFCO wash process.

Transparency at the IFCO RPCs wash centers

As IFCO’s Director of Food Safety and Quality, Jeffery Mitchell, explains, the success of the IFCO RPC wash process is guaranteed by the optimal combination of four key variables "temperature, detergent concentration, contact time and agitation." Furthermore, the IFCO SmartGuardian system monitors the whole process throughout, and independent tests ensure a pathogen-free pooling system.

"During a personal, guided tour of the IFCO wash facilities, we were able to see for ourselves how the sanitizing operations would protect our farms from plant pathogens and bacteria," says Knodt. Together with his partners at Vitarom Neurath, Knodt visited the IFCO RPCs wash center in Krefeld, Germany.

"For me, a standout moment was seeing how used IFCO RPCs entered the wash center through a separate, designated gate," adds Knodt. "The sanitized IFCO RPCs left via another exit, which ensured that used containers could not be confused with the clean ones." The transparency of the whole IFCO operation also gained the trust of the company.

From "eco-freak" to a role model in sustainable farming

The success of Vitarom Neurath depends a lot on trust, but they have earned it from consumers and partners alike. Their unique approach and commitment to sustainability and food safety have given their operations a competitive edge.

This is important in the most discerning of food markets: Germany’s top 10% of consumers. This is a small niche of German consumers who demand superior quality from sustainable production.

Over the years, these consumers have also grown to appreciate and trust regional produce from Vitarom Neurath. And they are willing to pay more for superior quality and sustainable farming practices.

Initially, the farming community may have ridiculed the eco-friendly focus and endeavors to protect tomato plants using sustainable farming techniques. "We were seen as the eco-freaks when we decided on CO2 -neutral greenhouses in 2004," Knodt says with a hearty chuckle. "But we were ahead of the curve."

Vitarom Neurath has come a long way since their ancestors’ early ventures into farming. Their strict carbon-neutral goals and safe hygiene measures produce enviable business results. As well as fruit and vegetables that are unlike anything the original farms could have cultivated. Evidently proud of the outcome, of their sustainable farming practices and of their farming genes, Knodt likes to sum up his approach with one clear and convincing statement: "Sustainability — it’s part of our DNA!"

IFCO’s food safety approach

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