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Watering online, harvesting by e-mail

January 22, 2002 

What first strikes the eye is the orderly condition of the vineyard, the bright greenness of the leaves and the juiciness of the fruit.

Then one notices the state-of-the-art weather station that sends data such as weather conditions, humidity, and sunlight striking the vine leaves, to a central computer that processes the information and makes recommendations regarding the work that needs to be done - all the watering, spraying and harvesting.

The farmers receive instructions on their own terminals as to the exact time that pruning and other tasks should begin. The result is a perfect grape, certified and carefully packed in crates and transported straight to the supermarket shelves in European markets. Each crate has its own identifying characteristics, its own code.

By typing the code into the computer, the producer, importer or consumer can automatically find out who produced the crop, when and where, when it was pruned, watered and sprayed and with what, when it was harvested, any traces of chemicals, the name of the transport company (even down to the specific truck), the name of the exporter, the date of packaging, departure and arrival at the product's final destination.

This project originates in Greece but has spread around the world, becoming a network of electronic farming over the past four years. One wonders that such a high-tech project could have been set up in Greece, where the farming population is dwindling and problems remain unresolved.

Suntip SA, the farming cooperative managing the network, is 40 percent owned by MicroTec and 60 percent by farmers, agronomists and packagers and is a member of a major multinational organization producing and distributing fresh produce.

Panayiotis Kanellopoulos, a professor of economics and information technology, has assumed responsibility for importing the technology for all the stages of planning, production and distribution.

"Our first goal was to produce and distribute high-quality products with the help of of computers and the Internet," he told Kathimerini.

"Consumers are demanding, and they have the right to know exactly what they are buying, at least in Western Europe, our sole export destination. Gone are the days when farmers could easily sell whatever they grew.

"This system ensures the best possible quality and absolute transparency," said Kanellopoulos.

"Our second aim was to guarantee our customers (supermarket chains in France and Britain chiefly, such as Tesco, JS, Marks and Spencer) sufficient quantities on their shelves throughout the year. So we have set up a network of similar businesses in several countries such as Spain, Argentina, Chile, Israel, Egypt, South Africa, Mexico and the USA. So if we in Greece can meet customer demand from August to October, for example, after that, the Argentinean producers take over, then Spain and so on," he added.

Focus on grapes

The Greek cooperative at the moment is focusing on the cultivation and export of grapes (a Californian variety of seedless white and red table grapes), which constitutes 80 percent of exports.

Other products are kiwi fruit (55 percent of all those produced in Greece), citrus fruit, cherries, peaches, nectarines and plums.

The fruit comes from 250 hectares of farms owned by over 110 farmers around the country from Corinth and Ileia in the Peloponnese to Tyrnavo, Xanthi and Serres in the north.

In order to be be connected to the network, processed by the cooperative's Central Agricultural Institute in Corinth, the farmers commit their produce to the cooperative for seven years; they are not entitled to use any pesticide in any quantity, in order to ensure that the final product is of the best quality and free of traces of chemicals.

The cooperative's chemical inspection unit takes regular samples from every field. It is a model of agricultural production that is unique in the world, with a Greek "brain" - the company's central office in London is managed by Greeks, although Greece by no means has the largest volume of exports.

For example, Greek exports total nearly 6 billion drachmas, while Spain's exports, for example, are close to 119 billion.

"The Internet has freed communication so that one doesn't need specialized equipment to have access to basic data.

The cost of communication is no more than a local phone call," said Kanellopoulos.

By Tasoula Karaiskaki-Kathimerini. © 1999-2000 IHT-KATHIMERINI English Edition.

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