Slovak farmers meet increasingly sophisticated demand by growing tomatoes with a flavor that can’t be imported.
Commercial greenhouses bear little resemblance to those of home gardeners. They can be several hectares long and grow produce not with soil but hydroponics. And in southwestern Slovakia, they are key to the success of farmers who are cultivating the loyalty of local taste buds.
A group of entrepreneurs on Zitny ostrov (Rye Island) found that the area, bordered by three rivers, is ideal for growing tomatoes. They formed what today is Slovakia’s largest tomato-growing group, GreenCoop, says its chief executive, Zsolt Bindics. Its greenhouses are heated by the area’s geothermal springs.
“Taste one; we couldn’t grow anything like this even in a home garden,” Bindics says to a visitor to one of his greenhouses in Zlatna na Ostrove as he offers a sample of its Vesela paradajka (Happy Tomato) brand. The plants tower over him, reaching up to 14 meters.
Greenhouse-grown tomatoes serve as a good example of how modern-day Slovak farmers are using the latest technology to bring produce to the market with taste rivaling that of home-grown.
Under the Communist regime, state-owned cooperative farms were unable to grow enough. Home gardens helped meet the demand by providing up to 40 percent of vegetable production, according to economist Jan Pokrivcak of the Slovak University of Agriculture in Nitra. The transition to a market economy after the fall of Communism in 1989 was anything but smooth. Agricultural cooperatives and family farms stood little chance against efficient Western European farmers, and foreign supermarket chains were knocking on the door, soon to import huge quantities of produce.
Bindics and GreenCoop’s other founders, then in their 20s, found their way to vegetable cultivation after first launching a company that provided foreign grocery chains doing business in Slovakia with produce from abroad. Slovakia was not yet a member of the European Union, so they took care of the necessary administration.
“At that time, a typical Slovak customer wanted cheap groceries,” says Bindics. “Everything that was cheap could be sold; everything that was of slightly higher quality could not.”
Buyers Become Growers
The preference for low cost above all else started to change when Slovakia joined the EU in 2004. Unemployment was falling, the economic situation was improving, and people were better off. The young entrepreneurs’ business lost its purpose since vegetables no longer had to go through customs checks, and grocery chains could buy produce directly.
These factors drove the transformation from imports to growing and production. “We saw clear signs of rising numbers of Slovak consumers who wanted quality vegetables – and we could grow them,” Bindics says. Taking advantage of Zitny ostrov’s long history of growing vegetables and the advent of hydroponics and other technologies, they chose tomatoes. The area offered optimal conditions for the crop, and based on their sales to the grocery chains, they saw that the tomato was the top-selling vegetable.
They built their first, 1.5-hectare greenhouse in Zlatna na Ostrove 15 years ago with help from EU funding. “The demand [for tomatoes] was so huge that we had to decide which chain to supply right away and which another time,” Bindics recalls.
Other players soon joined in the tomato business. According to data from the Slovak Association of Vegetable and Potato Growers, the country produces about 20,000 tons of greenhouse-raised tomatoes annually on an area of about 50 hectares. Much of it comes from Zitny ostrov. Bordered by the Danube, Little Danube, and Vah rivers, it boasts a mild climate.
The farms provide jobs to hundreds of locals. “Our employees don’t have to commute; they just get on the bike in the morning, and they’re at work in 10 minutes,” says Branislav Oremus, who grows tomatoes and gerbera daisies in greenhouses in the village of Banov.
Unlike large farms, which focus on cereals or oil seed crops, greenhouses employ a much larger number of people per unit of land. While the average in the Slovak agriculture sector is 2.5 workers per 100 hectares, intensive greenhouse cultivation, including post-harvest processing, employs as many as 1,500 people per 100 hectares. For example, the Oremus farm employs 18 workers per hectare.
The ability to bring the full-bodied flavor of local greenhouse tomatoes to customers created a local market for Slovak growers. “Some years ago, you simply could not buy high-end cherry tomatoes over here. The imports were simply too expensive, and no one would pay for them,” says Peter Kelemen, chief executive of Farma Bruty, a member of the Bratislava-based Ovozela coop.
Nowadays, Bindics says, “when Spanish and Slovak tomatoes sit side by side on the shelf, domestic consumers are willing to pay a 5 to 10 percent premium to bring home the domestic product.”
Jakub Huba, fruit and vegetable manager at Yeme, an upscale Slovak grocery chain, says his stores can sell “100 percent Slovak tomatoes” for most of the year. “And for a few months a year we also offer popular Hungarian varieties, or possibly special Italian varieties. But we always prefer the Slovak ones, which also make up the vast majority of our sales.”
Naturally, Slovak tomatoes are most easily available during the summer, in the warm months. “In Slovakia, there are a lot of tomatoes on the market in the six months around the summer as outdoor gardeners [small commercial farmers] add their produce to the shop shelves along with the larger growers, and the country is self-sufficient in tomatoes,” says Erik Csatari, CEO of the Paradajkovo (Tomato Town) company.
It’s been several years since Yeme carried Spanish, Dutch, or other tomatoes that need to travel thousands of kilometers to reach customers. Meanwhile, demand for locally grown tomatoes has been rising by 20 to 30 percent a year. Part of the reason, Huba says, is the ever-growing selection of varieties in different shapes, colors, and levels of sweetness.
The availability of domestic tomatoes also has increased in the discount supermarket chain Lidl. On average, Slovak-grown tomatoes accounted for more than half of total tomato sales in its Slovak stores between 2018 and 2020, says Lidl spokesman Tomas Bezak.
Checklist for Success
What the Slovak growers did right:
• They chose a product that enjoys constant demand. Tomatoes can be consumed throughout the year, whether cooked or raw, and are affordable and familiar.
• They offered customers a product that tastes markedly better when picked ripe. With tomatoes, the difference between harvesting ripe vs green is immediately obvious.
• They took advantage of foreign know-how and invested in modern technology that helps them grow a high-quality product as well as reduce the use of chemical agents.
• They joined forces. Most Slovak greenhouse tomato growers merged under umbrella brands. This makes it easier for consumers to navigate the clutter of products on supermarket shelves and gives growers’ coops a stronger bargaining position.
• They bet on the local workforce. People in southwestern Slovakia can find jobs close to home rather than relocating. This also benefits the social life that helps local communities thrive.
These advantages are delivering steady sales increases. According to the Finstat portal, GreenCoop’s revenues climbed from 2.1 million euros in 2012 to 30.7 million in 2020. At Ovozela, another large coop, revenues more than doubled between 2017 and 2020, when they reached 20.6 million euros.
Not all is smooth sailing in the tomato business, however. The paradox still holds that an imported product that has to travel long distances often is cheaper than domestic produce. Production costs make all the difference.
Kelemen explains this with the example of the Dutch produce trading system. Most Dutch growers pre-sell most of their crop at agreed prices. They may be left with a fifth or so of the harvest as surplus, which they can sell for a few cents to Eastern Europe.
“This is the problem. Every week there is a grower in the Netherlands who needs to get rid of their surplus. Our chains try to buy as cheaply as possible abroad,” Kelemen says.
As Bindics tells it, today’s Slovak vegetable growers are burdened by their short history. In contrast to farmers abroad, locals are still trying to recoup their initial investment. Whereas a new grower has to take out a hefty loan, an established Dutch grower repaid such an initial loan a long time ago.
Imports also can be bought outside the main season, when domestic production is lower. A plant can produce fruit in the greenhouse for about 10 months, when it must be replaced with a seedling that needs time before it starts producing fruit. The costs for lighting and heat make winter crops more energy-intensive outside of southern Europe. This is reflected in lower yields, higher production costs, and the final price.
“In winter, you grow half as much produce, and your expenses double,” says Paradajkovo CEO Csatari. On the other hand, since the competition is less intense in winter, the Paradajkovo brand appears in more stores, as most of the competition drops out.
Plans for Growth
What about seeking export outlets? That is not easy to do in a fiercely competitive market. New greenhouses are going up in the Czech Republic and Poland – the latter already a big player in the greenhouse-raised vegetable market. Hungary has always had favorable climatic conditions for growing tomatoes. And of course growers in these countries might want to place their produce on Slovak store shelves.
Growers also chafe at the marketing techniques of some retail chains, which package Slovak tomatoes under their own private labels. This means shoppers don’t see the familiar logos under which growers developed a relationship with their customers.
So far, though, the pluses outweigh the negatives. The Slovak tomato business shows momentum, continuing will to innovate, and plans for growth.
GreenCoop, for example, recently ventured into exporting to Hungary and the Czech Republic. In Hungary, they even have a greenhouse to supply tomatoes to the Spar and Aldi chains. That market niche is not easy to crack, however. Hungarian consumers tend to give preferential treatment to homegrown food products, and although the Slovak-owned greenhouses are located only a few kilometers from Hungarian ones with identical growing conditions, Hungarian shoppers tend to opt for tomatoes with their own flag on the package.
GreenCoop also plans to build up those operations and cultivate tomatoes and cucumbers for the Hungarian market in the border town of Acs. They’ve considered building a greenhouse for peppers, although Bindics says factors such as lower market prices will probably rule that out without subsidies.
Farma Bruty used its success with tomatoes as a springboard to a new crop – strawberries. So far that crop is doing well, Kelemen says, adding that the company also wants to offer organic products. Various fruits and vegetables are suitable for greenhouse cultivation in the local climatic conditions, he says.
“Some shoppers may think that they are buying vegetables grown from the soil,” he says. “But nowadays it doesn’t work that way anymore. Abroad, vegetables are grown in greenhouses – from zucchini to eggplant and lettuce to peppers.” The reason is simple. Unpredictable weather makes cultivation of crops like zucchini on large, outdoor fields a very risky business. Even though greenhouses are more investment-intensive, they make more economic sense.
Paradajkovo also is toying with the idea of growing other crops and is considering strawberries and blueberries. “Everyone loves them,” says Csatari. “We are analyzing the possibilities, looking at the prices of products throughout the year and trying to evaluate the investment and return.”
Oremus also plans to expand in the coming years. The market for tomatoes might be quite saturated, but he believes there is still room to grow and compete against imports. He’s also looking into expanding into cucumbers, peppers, and lettuce.
“Slovaks have finally found their way to fresh domestic produce,” he says. “The decision to buy is no longer just about the price, but also depends on the taste and the smell a person remembers from childhood. It’s also about the emotion that imported tomatoes can’t give you.”
Slovak journalist Tatiana Kapitanova specializes in the retail and consumer goods sectors. This article was supported by a solutions journalism project run by Transitions and the Bratislava-based media monitoring organization MEMO 98.
Translated by Jakub Minarik.