Wim van de Heuvel (57) works in the Herselt, Antwerp, where he grows different kinds of tomatoes. But over the past few months, amidst Europe's energy crisis, the cost of greenhouse growing is higher than ever.
“Gas prices are so high right now that they could cost you all your savings in six months,” Van de Heuvel told DeMorgen. Keeping the ambient temperature in greenhouses around 17 – 18°C in winter requires enormous amounts of energy. The escalating gas prices, and the resulting rise in energy prices, therefore has a massive impact on the finances of greenhouse growers.
Van de Heuvel used to pay around €500,000 per year for energy. At current prices, he will have to stump up €2.5 million. “Who can afford that?”
Several growers chose to sow later in spring in order to avoid heating during the cold winter months. But this means that the supply of fresh produce has taken a hit.
The result is plain to see on Belgian food markets: in February, there were 60% fewer vine tomatoes available, while the number of loose tomatoes and cucumbers supplied fell by 55% and 36%, respectively, compared to 2021 levels.
And high energy prices aren't the only obstacle greenhouse growers currently face, as other costs are increasing, too. West Flanders horticulturist Kaat Vandepitte told DeMorgen that the price of fertilisers has tripled – an increase that is not reflected in the price of the final product.
That causes acute liquidity problems for plenty of greenhouse growers, the Flemish Information Centre for Agriculture and Horticulture (VILT) reported. Entrepreneurs with variable energy contracts are hit the hardest, with some of them not even buying plants anymore.
Pieter Van Oost, advisor of vegetable production at the Boerenbond, says there is a need for crisis measures. He suggests giving greenhouse growers easier access to credit, faster VAT returns and a temporary exemption from property tax for greenhouses.
“The gas tap should not be turned off immediately if people who previously always paid on time are now struggling with vastly higher bills,” Van Oost said. The energy sector will have to work out a solution together with greenhouse horticulturists to avoid bankruptcy.