Innovative Dutch papaya grower optimizes cultivation with SoilMania soil sensors

For Roy Steegh from Wellerlooi, pioneering new crops and cultivation methods is in his blood. In the early 1990s, his father Noud was one of the first to sell vine tomatoes. This family has now been growing tomatoes for nearly seventy years. Like his father, Roy also likes a challenge. In 2019, together with three growers from Sunfresh Growers Association in Venlo, he decided to grow Europe’s first commercial greenhouse papayas.
What started with a test setup at Wageningen University is now a greenhouse in Wellerlooi with twelve thousand melon trees on 4 hectares. Papayas have been harvested since the autumn of 2020. “In the summer, the trees produce about 30,000 papayas a week. In the winter, our trees produce about half of that,” says Roy. “On the one hand, our biggest challenge is growing in tubs with substrate, because we are used to growing tomatoes in stone wool. On the other hand, it is a massive challenge to uncover the most ideal growing conditions for this tree, in terms of climate, soil structure, soil composition, nutrients and moisture."
Pioneer in papaya cultivation looking for answers during a cultivation-technical discovery tour
“We are the first in Europe to grow papaya trees on a commercial scale. Nobody has any experience in this,” says Roy. “We learn something new every day. That provides energy. One week you make great strides, the next week the developments come to a standstill. Challenges we encounter with this innovative cultivation are: Do we have the correct soil composition for this tree? What moisture content in the soil is ideal for this tree? At what time of the day is the best time to provide water and nutrition? How much and what composition of nutrition does this plant need exactly?"
Innovative soil sensors provide guidelines for the correct cultivation method
“Every day I am faced with puzzles, simply because there is not much knowledge available about cultivation here in the Netherlands. But, since our start in 2019, we have already made quite some progress. And we don't do it alone. We work together with experts in this field including tree expert Willy Detiger and technologist Marcel Steegh from SoilMania who have placed innovative sensors in every tub. Thanks to their handy soil sensor technology, we gather many new insights with these sensors,” says Roy. “Together with Marcel and Willy, I analyze the soil based on the sensor data and the data obtained from the soil samples examined in the SoilMania Laboratory. We discuss what we find, we hypothesize about the cause and we take next steps to further optimize the cultivation. ”
Soil sensors are a reliable quality control and monitoring tool for crop optimization
“We have been trying our hand at papaya cultivation in this greenhouse for 1.5 years now. The first sensors were placed in the tubs in February 2020. From Day 1, the sensors provide insight into the current status of the factors that are important to us, such as:
The sensors provide a reliable means to control and optimize cultivation. The central question is always: What composition is the most ideal for this plant? By analyzing the sensor data, we have already been able to considerably optimize the composition of the soil and the nutritional values, making the plant a lot more vital. The ultimate goal is to make the natural environment here in the greenhouse equal to that in the country of origin (Mexico), both in terms of climate and soil composition. After we’ve accomplished that I’m sure I'll find another challenge to do it even better,” says Roy.
“Consumers will certainly taste the difference in the long run. Now the papayas in the shops mainly come from South America and India. They are harvested when they’re still green and then prepared for transport. Our papayas, on the other hand, are picked as ripe as possible, which benefits the taste. It is also our goal to further develop the taste of the papayas by adding the right types of nutrients to the soil. That is a great next challenge I would like to take on, together with SoilMania. ”
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Please contact project manager Marcel from SoilMania.