Zero residue tomatoes from Czech Republic
Interview with Farma Bezdinek on their company and current challenges
In a country that ranks second-last in the production of vegetables per capita in the whole of Europe, Farma Bezdinek from the Czech Republic has a clear mission: Help Czechs eat the best-tasting and locally grown vegetables with zero residue, all year round.
In this in-depth interview series we speak with Jan Fucik, operations manager, and Milan Kula, agronomist and aspiring future leader in sustainable food production (he participated in the EatThis. Future Leaders week). They tell us about their operations in Eastern Europe and the current challenges the horticulture sector faces.
Jan, can you share a bit more about your background, how did you end up working at Farma Bezdinek?
I received an agricultural education and worked for all my professional career in the world of fast moving consumer goods.
I really like plants and nature. When I met the co-owner of Farma Bezdinek, Mr. Jiří Stodůlka, and he offered to become a participant on the project, I did not hesitate. So here I am!
Milan, what is your story? Why are you passionate about plants and how did you end up working at Farma Bezdinek?
I love the Dutch expression “green fingers” and I truly feel that I have them. I am really enjoying to create the best greenhouse climate for my tomato plants. I touch the plants and speak with them, I feel like I truly understand what they need.
Originally, I am from Slovakia and I got a degree from Slovak Agriculture University. After my graduation, I worked as a department manager at an ornamental nursery for 5 years.
The company of Farma Bezdinek’s co-owner, Mr. Jiří Stodůlka, installed a new irrigation system for us. During this project, we met several time and we shared our thoughts and vision on the future of the horticultural sector in our country. Those conversations motivated me to go and work at Farma Bezdinek. This was still the best decision I made in my career so far!
Farma Bezdinek is a modern, high tech producer of greenhouse vegetables in Czech Republic. Can you tell us a bit more about the company?
The company started with a first greenhouse of 5 ha in 2018. One year later, a second greenhouse of 6 ha was added to the operation. Farma Bezdinek only produces tomatoes. We are growing baby plum tomatoes of the Sweetelle variety (Syngenta) and larger tomatoes on the vine of the Marinice variety (De Ruiter Seeds).
Previously, we used artificial lighting for our crop (6,8 ha in total), but because of the rising energy prices we have been forced to change our strategy. We will only have ‘summer production’, which means we’ll produce only when there’s sufficient natural light and not year round anymore.
Our tomatoes are so-called ‘zero residue’, that means that no traces of pesticides are found on our produce. We are a certified zero residue producer since Farma Bezdinek started in 2018.
Almost all our tomatoes are sold on the local market, so in Czech Republic. This year, 2022, we sold some tomatoes abroad and that was a first for us. The reason was overproduction in June, July and August. Unfortunately, the situation with overproduction in Europe will be even worse next year, because all European growers are currently facing the same problem with energy prices so they will most probably focus more on production during the summer months.
Are you the only modern greenhouse production company in the country and if yes, why? And if not, can you give more insight in what the production sector looks like?
In Czech Republic I estimate there’s around 60 ha of modern greenhouses. In those greenhouses growers mostly produce tomatoes. Tomatoes on the Vine (TOV) on some 10 ha and cherry tomatoes on the remaining acreage. In addition, cucumbers are also being produced, but only on some 8 ha. All vegetables are sold on the local market. We expect that the acreage of TOV will increase next year.
The company is located in the far east of the country, near the border with Poland and relatively far from big cities, why there?
This location was selected because of the power plant which is close to our greenhouse. We can buy heat and electricity from them at more favorable rates.
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What does the market in Czech Republic look like? In other words, what happens with your vegetables after you harvest them? How do they end up on the consumer’s plates?
All our tomatoes go to a packing company we closely cooperate with. This company is also responsible for the sales of our tomatoes. Our tomatoes end up in almost all the supermarkets all around the country.
In the future this situation will most probably change and we will take charge of packing and sales ourselves.
Your vision is very much aligned with that of EatThis. ; You work to let eat people more healthy vegetables. Why is that so important in Czech Republic?
At Farma Bezdinek, we strongly feel that creating a sustainable production environment is a necessity, something we are not only doing for ourselves but also for future generations. We also feel obliged to produce really healthy products with the best flavor for all the people in our country. We know that the people in Czech Republic and Slovakia are not eating sufficient fresh vegetables and we want to change this by providing them with our tasty, local tomatoes!
Your vegetables are residue free. How easy or difficult is that and why is it so important to you to adhere to this criteria?
From the beginning, we have felt that this is the way to go when producing high quality food. The production process is more complicated and also more expensive. Unfortunately, we do see that for consumers the product price remains the most important factor. More important than quality.
In the EU, the new Green Deal wants to make food production more sustainable and promote towards its people to eat more vegetables. How would you describe the current situation in Czech Republic and what is needed to promote this even more?
These are difficult times of course. In Czech Republic, inflation has risen to 20% and households are becoming poorer. I expect that next year will be even more difficult.
Despite all this, we still invest a lot of time to explain to the people here how important it is to eat fresh vegetables every day and all year round. To this end, we set up social media campaigns and we organize guided tours in our demo greenhouse on how we actually grow our fresh, healthy tomatoes. We do see that people are willing to learn more greenhouses and the vegetables we produce as well as about the benefits of changing eating habits.
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How do you envision the future of your company? If you look at current technological developments in horticulture, what is important for you to implement and why?
We envision more ways in how technology can help us in the greenhouse. In Czech Republic we are aware that high tech greenhouses for growing tomatoes are still a novelty. We strongly believe in artificial intelligence (AI) to fill the gaps in our knowledge and become better growers.
We realize that we need lot of information to grow healthy plants that have the best yield. For that, we need accurate and reliable sensors for almost everything (from roots system EC, pH, water content, till par light sensors, or measurement of biomass and stress of plants).
Last but not least, we can see a fantastic opportunity to make robotization in greenhouses more effective. Not to replace the workers, but to help them to be quicker and more precise.
Milan, you were one of the participants to our first Future Leaders program in June 2022. What was your main take away of this training and how do you envision young entrepreneurs may change the food systems of the future?
I was really impressed by the different opinions about food production I heard from the people we met during the course. I realized how different people look at the production of fresh, healthy vegetables in greenhouses.
Our goal as a future leaders is to show to the people, how the food comes to their tables. We are using high tech technology such as AI and sensors. We analyze our crops, we are using GPS in open fields, we are using biological crop protection, we have really strict standards for our food production.
We, growers and farmers, can feed a world population of 8, 10 or even 12 billion people with healthy food, but people don’t know that. We need to educate them, because we need them to know this!
At the same time you are an EatThis. contributor. What do you expect from the partnership and the international platform you’re a member of?
We value our collaboration with EatThis, because you build bridges between us and other colleagues from the agricultural sector as well as the general public. We feel this is very important. At the same time we know to achieve this, you need to be patient. You are patient and so are we, so we look forward to keep working on achieving this goal together!