The Bolla family has been operating their greenhouse business out of Nettuno, a small town in central Italy, for more than 70 years. “In late fall-spring, we grow chard, chicory, and spinach. June through October, we grow eggplants, cucumbers, and green pod beans. In the summertime, we grow arugula, and since a few years, we have added lettuce and celery,” says Antonio Bolla, owner of Azienda Agricola Bolla.
One of the reasons why it has kept operating for such a long time is that the company has always embraced sustainability and innovation. “Ten years ago, I wasn’t happy at all with our production, both from a quality and quantity standpoint,” he points out. “We were having big issues, so I started looking around to find a solution. It was at that time that I met Alessandro Cinelli, an agronomist. We started looking at greenhouse cultivation in a completely different way.”
A support rather than a means
Antonio further explains that they started treating the soil like support and not like a means of production. They started analyzing the soil, and the water, covering their 20 hectares of greenhouses with sensors to measure how the plants are performing. “This way, we proceed by integrating, rather than simply irrigating, providing the plants with the exact nutrients they need.” Being precise with fertilizers and irrigation is crucial for Antonio, not only from a financial standpoint but also because the soil is rather sandy, meaning less retention. “Sometimes, we add some compost to the soil to balance and increase the retention.”
This compost too, is rich in nutrients, as it is the byproduct of biogas. “There’s a biogas plant nearby, and they collect all of our waste. With the byproduct of that, we improve the quality of the soil while also adding important nutrients.”
Ahead of the curve
Since Antonio and his company mainly work with big distribution, he needs to comply with quite some high standards. Yet, he always makes sure to be ahead of the curve. “We are going the extra mile and are already using inoculants, mycorrhizae.” On top of that, he is currently upgrading the greenhouse to test a new robot to up the efficiency of the operation. “We are working on the rail system and all of that while the supplier is taking care of manufacturing the robot.” This can surely be of great help to decrease even further the phytosanitary actions he has to take, though Antonio already had some success without the use of a robot. “Three years ago, I did the entire winter cycle without spraying even once.”
Since then, the company has been doing quite ok concerning crop protection, although it’s not an easy task, Antonio admits. “You do hit some walls, especially if you consider that it’s much easier and immediately effective to just spray some chemicals. The problem lies in the fact that most of the suppliers don’t educate growers on the chemicals in question. In this way, it’s difficult for growers to come up with a method that would give them results as well as address sustainability. Thus, growers are left on their own to find the right resources and answers. When I had to understand proper fertilization, I hired an agronomist, and I listened to him for 8 hours straight. After that, we kept in contact and exchanged info on the said phytosanitary treatments.”
Dealing with crises
This utter attention to the smallest details has allowed Antonio and Azienda Agricola Bolla to be little to no affected by the increasing energy prices.
“We initially heated the greenhouses with diesel, then we started using biomass, and currently we are using LPG, on which you don’t pay taxes. On top of this, the price of LPG is much more stable than natural gas. There were some increases in this space too, but nothing compared to natural gas. For instance, the price for LPG went from 0.37 euros to 0.55. Also, about the labor shortage, I had issues during COVID, but now I am all covered. I got people lined up here looking to work in our greenhouses. Admittedly though, the price increase on fertilizers and plastics, as well as transportation, are quite something to cope with, currently. Our monthly bill indeed went from 3,000 euros to 9,000. This is mainly because of fertilizers and irrigation water.”
At the same time, the big distribution hasn’t adapted to these cost increases in production. So, Antonio has to find ways to get by himself. “Now I’m in a position where I can somewhat have leverage when bargaining over the price,” he says. “For instance, there was a distributor who offered me a 4% increase to buy my produce. Needless to say, I immediately blacklisted them. At this company, we are constantly improving our processes, and the results show that. On top of that, we are using recyclable packaging and are putting a lot of effort into educating our workforce. In addition to that, our policy also includes same-day deliveries. This means that if a supplier pays less for my produce or buys less of what was agreed upon initially, it’s a huge loss, economically speaking. From a personal standpoint, though, this is the good fight growers have to fight. When the consumers are aware of the processes in place at cultivation and how financially and labor-intensive that is, then they’d be happier to pay the higher price. Else, growers have to create the demand themselves. In this way, they can dictate the price and decide to whom to sell their produce.”
For more information:
Bolla Azienda Agricola