cold snap on the french tomato

published on Thursday 07 April 2022 at 11:04 am

In Jean Guilbaud’s rows of tomatoes, he can better keep his fur. Like many of his colleagues, the Breton horticulturist has (almost) not heated his greenhouses since the rise in gas prices as a result of the war in Ukraine.

Heart of beef, Noire de Crimée or Rose de Berne: on this spring day, the harvest of heirloom tomatoes is in full swing in the greenhouses of the Jardins de Sévigné, at the gates of Rennes.

But that morning, the atmosphere between the rows of above-ground tomatoes was cooler than usual, with temperatures not exceeding 12°C, at an average of 20°C.

Since the rise in gas prices, which have risen to ten times the normal rate, Jean Guilbaud has drastically reduced the heating of his 2.3 hectares of greenhouses, the oldest of which dates back to the 1970s.

With such old greenhouses, it was “already an economic model on borrowed time,” says the horticulturist. “So, with the evolution of energy costs, there is no solution”, laments the man with the graying mustache, by way of “sad and resigned observation”.

This “vegetable lover” may have postponed part of his harvest for three months, which will be grown “completely cold”, the three days of frost in early April “still cost him 15,000 euros” of gas just to protect his young plants, he calculates.

– Falling revenues –

Without heat, tomatoes also run the risk of growing more slowly and developing diseases, leading to a drop in yields. “Many companies will not recover from this,” said Mr Guilbaud.

According to professional associations in the sector, France has about 1,200 hectares of above-ground tomato greenhouses, which are mainly heated by gas.

Tomatoes in heated greenhouses are often criticized because their carbon footprint (1.88 kilos of CO2 per kilo of tomatoes) is much heavier than that of seasonal tomatoes (0.51 kilos), according to figures from Ademe (Agence environmental and energy management).

Its defenders point to very low water consumption and less use of pesticides.

More modern and better insulated greenhouses have also significantly reduced their energy consumption in recent years.

But with gas prices rising, “it’s our entire system that’s being affected,” admits Laurent Bergé, president of France’s Association of National Producer Organizations (AOPn) Tomatoes and Cucumbers. “We are completely questioning our technical model”.

– “Big losses” –

“It’s as if the fuel at the pump was 15 euros per liter,” develops Bruno Vila, general secretary of Légumes de France and tomato producer near Perpignan. “For every kilo you produce, you lose money”.

Because passing on the increase in energy costs would amount to a doubling of the sales price of tomatoes for producers. In other words, mission impossible in light of the competition from Moroccan tomatoes.

“It will be a very difficult year, there will be big losses,” predicts Christophe Rousse, chairman of the Breton cooperative Solarenn. “If we can’t heat the greenhouses, we’ll run out of French tomatoes,” he says.

Especially since the solutions to do without gas heating are still emerging.

Some recent greenhouses have managed to connect to a district heating network, such as in Vitré (Ille-et-Vilaine), where the incinerator heats the tomatoes.

Others, such as Yannick Bernard, a horticulturist in Saint-Nicolas-du-Tertre (Morbihan), combine a wood-fired boiler with a heat network generated by gas from a methanation plant.

“Today I’m not bothered much (due to the increase in energy prices). We don’t sleep the same…”, he admits.

But the best option might be to harvest the “waste” energy generated by other industries. “It’s the most obvious solution, that’s the future of our profession,” said Mr. Bernard.