This Europe: Spain's strawberry fields get a watery makeover

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Strawberry fields may no longer be for ever. Rather, they seem set for extinction.

Strawberry fields may no longer be for ever. Rather, they seem set for extinction.

Producers in Huelva, the southern Spanish region that supplies almost all the domestic market (and satisfies much of Britain's demand), are developing plans to cultivate the fruit in a soil-free environment, just as tomatoes are grown in the Netherlands. Early results suggest production will soar.

Huelva's already intensive strawberry industry is extremely lucrative: 2,000 producers gather some 300,000 tons in a business worth more than €4bn (£2.6bn) a year.

But it is a risky operation. The harvest period is short, over-production can swamp the market and make prices plunge, and drought or floods at the wrong moment can ruin the season.

So the Seville-based company Fragaria has put €1.2m into researching hydroponic (soil-free) cultivation. It has planted strawberries in various solutions of nutrients, and in soil substitutes that include fine gravel or clinkstone, carbon granules and wood fibre.

The pioneering technique will, the scientists believe, produce two annual crops, which means the market can be supplied all year round. At present, Chile and South Africa provide Europe's off-season supplies.

In addition, more than double the quantity can be grown in the same space:110,000 plants per hectare instead of 50,000 in traditional strawberry fields. And they need less water and fewer pesticides.

Scientists in the laboratories have also suspended the experimental beds at shoulder height.

This means the backbreaking toil of workers bent double to harvest from the ground, seems destined to become a thing of the past.