Growing for Woolies – Part 1

In Part 1 of this two-part series, PH&G talks to some of Woolworths’ ‘Fresh Food Farmers’ who grow hydroponic produce for Australia’s largest supermarket chain. Report by CHRISTINE BROWN-PAUL

In line with its commitment to be Australia’s ‘Fresh Food People’, Woolworths sources 96% of its fresh fruit and vegetables from farms across Australia. With around 3490 large and small Australian businesses that supply the iconic Australian supermarket chain, Woolworths stocks Australian fresh food wherever possible and only imports when local fruit and vegetables are out of season.

“Woolworths are committed to our Aussie farmers,” says a company spokesperson.

“We have great partnerships with our growers from fruit and vegetable farmers to beef growers.”

PH&G talks to some of the ‘Fresh Food Farmers’ who grow hydroponic produce for Woolworths.

Trandos Hydroponic Growers, Western Australia

With its vision to be Australia’s premier supplier of glasshouse and outdoor grafted vegetable seedlings, Trandos Hydroponic Growers (THG) works with growers to tailor plants, which are best suited to local conditions. European standards are implemented within THG’s operations and the company has been accepted as a member of the International Seed Federation. It is also a member of Good Seed and Plant Practice (GSPP).

Also as a major supplier to Woolworths, THG uses state-of-the-art technology and greenhouses to hydroponically grow different varieties of tomatoes year round. The Trandos family has been farming in Wanneroo, Western
Australia, since 1939. Third generation farmer Danny Trandos—General Manager of Trandos Hydroponics Growers—might use different methods from that of his great grandfather, however, the resulting product is still the same—
plump, juicy and delicious tomatoes.

THG’s association with Woolworths can be traced back to the mid-90s, while the company also has a relationship with the supermarket chain going back to the mid-80s in terms of other agricultural businesses run by the family.

“We have established a long and successful relationship with Woolworths, as the most important qualities for THG is to work with companies who share a common goal of delivering the finest and freshest produce to our customers,” says Danny.

“At present, Trandos Hydroponic Growers produce four different lines for the Woolworths tomato category.

“These include Cocktail Truss Tomatoes Pre-pack, Cherry Truss Tomatoes Pre-pack, Tomato Truss 500gm Pre-pack and Loose Tomato Truss 5kg.

“We are in constant contact with Woolworths Category Manager Mario Saad and WA buyer Glenn Wilson, to discuss new and exciting developments in this category,” he says.

At certain times of the year, Trandos Hydroponic Growers supplies the majority of WA’s tomato category in these specific lines.

Danny Trandos (right), General Manager of Trandos Hydroponics Growers (THG), and Thomas Breen from Monsanto discuss the potential of different varieties of tomatoes at THG’s glasshouse facility in Wanneroo, Western Australia.

Danny Trandos (right), General Manager of Trandos Hydroponics Growers (THG), and Thomas Breen from Monsanto discuss the potential of different varieties of tomatoes at THG’s glasshouse facility in Wanneroo, Western Australia.

THG’s greenhouses consist of medium-tech plastic to high-tech diffused glasshouse structures. With ongoing demand for consistency in quality of product, an emphasis is placed on maintaining robust nutrient and IPM programs.

“Our nutrient program changes slightly throughout the year but in general it is a standard recipe,” says Danny Trandos.

“We have access to our private THG laboratory so we test for nutrient deficiencies weekly if needs be.

“We use Manchil IPM Services for all our IPM monitoring. Lachlan Chilman and his team visit weekly giving advice and dropping off beneficial insects. They have their own insectary located here in Western Australia,” he says.

Manchil IPM Services produces biological control agents such as Orius armatus, Phytoseiulus persimilis and Neoseiulus cucumeris, which are forwarded to all Australian states with the exception of Neoseiulus cucumeris, which is only available for distribution in Western Australia.

“We also supply a range of beneficial insects that are made available to us from Australasian Biological Control Association (ABC) members,” Danny adds.

So are there any challenges in running such a successful operation?

“The challenges at present faced by growers would undoubtedly be climatic related,” Danny says.

“However, at present, tomato, pepper and aubergine growers are facing a huge shortage of seeds. All seeds that fall under these categories face strict importation certification and testing protocols. This has seen some of the industry’s most popular and best producing varieties be placed in quarantine for up to two to three months while testing is being performed.

“I’m nervous about the situation, but I think this issue should be resolved in the near future, fingers crossed,” he says.

Another challenge facing growers like THG is shifting market demand.
“Market demand has changed over the years most definitely, and so have our shopping habits,” Danny says.

“When I was young my mum would do the food shopping once a fortnight, now we shop up to three times per week, and in other countries people shop daily for their fresh food.

“This has seen companies like Woolworths introduce new packaging sizes; for example, years ago we would buy one kilogram packs of loose tomatoes, now we buy 250-gram packs of specialty varieties with great flavour, that are ready for snacking and convenient,” he says.

“Cooking shows have also helped promote our industry and change in demand as people are asking for more unique and exotic produce. They also want to know where their food comes from and how it’s grown—how great is that!”

Danny and the Trandos family are passionate about growing the finest quality produce and enjoy an excellent working relationship with Woolworths.

Danny estimates that in next 40 years, we will need to produce the same amount of food as the last 10,000 years, combined, to feed the planet—a challenge he is looking forward to.

“I can honestly tell consumers that the future is exciting as our partnership with Woolworths continues to grow,” he says.

“We are working together to develop new and exciting products, so keep an eye out at your local Woolworths and don’t be afraid to ask how is it grown and by whom, as you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

More information about Trandos Hydroponic Growers at: http://thg.trandos.com.au

Glenorie Hydroponics, New South Wales
Another hydroponic grower supplier for Woolworths is Glenorie Hydroponics, located just 40 minutes from the heart of Sydney’s CBD and producing fresh gourmet lettuce straight from the farm to the shelves.

Drawing on the experience of three generations, this family owned and operated business produces the highest quality produce using natural pest control systems (IPM) and secure safety measures.

Glenorie Hydroponics delivers three boutique varieties of lettuce on a daily basis: Green Oak, Red Oak and Butter lettuce.

“We produce around 2.5 thousand cases weekly containing eight lettuce per box,” says Robert D’Anastasi, who runs the business together with his father Joe.

Originally a soil farmer, like his father Anthony before him, Joe D’Anastasi has been growing fancy lettuce varieties on his Glenorie farm for 26 years. Following a back injury in 1988, Joe decided to move into hydroponic farming as the waist-high tables meant increased ease of work.

The surprising capacity for production in a 1.4 hectare area meant that Joe was able to grow an impressive amount of lettuce—around 1,000,000 heads per year—and he soon secured a place as a supplier for Woolworths.

Originally a cabinetmaker, Joe’s son Robert decided to team up with his father 12 years ago. Today, the business leads the way in environmentally friendly hydroponic farming. Now General Manager of Glenorie Hydroponics, Robert says he is involved in just about every aspect of production, taking a hands-on approach.

Lettuce thrives on a water recirculation system, starting out as seedlings and progressing through the farm in stages until they are harvested at seven weeks in winter and four weeks in summer.

“We use IPM to control disease and pests and every week. Andy Roland from IPMC Consulting comes in to monitor levels,” Robert says.

“We only use three very gentle sprays and these are rotated to avoid a build-up of pest resistance.”

Robert D’Anastasi (right) and his father Joe run Glenorie Hydroponics, which delivers three boutique varieties of lettuce on a daily basis to Woolworths.

Robert D’Anastasi (right) and his father Joe run Glenorie Hydroponics, which delivers three boutique varieties of lettuce on a daily basis to Woolworths.

Glenorie Hydroponics prides itself on being a Sydney farm for Sydney tables, delivering lettuce from harvest to shelves in less than 24 hours.

“These days, people don’t seem to be buying in such large quantities as they used to. Rather, they’ll shop more often and purchase smaller quantities to ensure freshness of product,” Robert says.

“Market demand has definitely changed over the years and companies like Woolworths have responded to this positively; for example, about five years ago they introduced the concept of putting lettuce into sleeves. This means that quantities sold can be monitored more readily through the barcodes at
the checkout.

“We do all the sleeving and boxing of our lettuce at our operations at Glenorie.

“Another benefit is that by using the sleeving method, there is less waste,” he says.

“There aren’t the huge quantities left over anymore that need to be dumped so that’s a win-win situation for the company and for the environment.”

More information at: www.glenoriehydroponics.com

Moraitis Tomatoes, Victoria
Greg Prendergast is the production manager at Moraitis Tomatoes’ high-tech Tatura glasshouse in Victoria. The company has been supplying Woolworths with tomatoes since 2004, producing more than 2.5 million kilograms of tomatoes every year.

Last year, however, Moraitis expanded their offering to include the bite-sized, Sweet Solanato tomato, exclusively available at Woolworths. This brand new variety of mini tomato has a higher concentration of natural sugars than its counterparts, perfect for both adults and children.

Together with other glasshouses in South Australia and Bundaberg, Tatura will provide Woolworths with a year-round supply. The tomatoes are purpose-grown in different parts of Australia to ensure they are available year round. Victoria and South Australia produce fruit all year, while Queensland produces the winter crop and New South Wales the spring and summer crops.

Following impressive crop trials, Sweet Solanato tomatoes are grown exclusively in Australia by Moraitis and Perfection Fresh. The variety has already proved a winner with consumers in Europe and the United States where it has been available since late 2011.

Bright red Sweet Solanato tomatoes are the size and shape of a grape and have been specially developed to combine acidity with a sweet flavour, resulting in a robust tomato burst and a sweet aftertaste.

“We have worked closely with Perfection Fresh Australia and Moraitis Pty Ltd to develop this new mini tomato variety,” says Paul Harker, head of produce for Woolworths.

“We are always looking at ways to work with our suppliers to ensure we provide the latest innovation in fresh food to our customers. We saw a gap in the market for a sweet snacking tomato and we know our customers will love them.”

Founded in 1978, Perfection Fresh Australia Pty Ltd is serviced by fresh produce growers across Australia and supplies specialty fruit and vegetable lines to premier food retailers, processors and distributors Australia-wide and internationally.

Moraitis Pty Ltd is a leading vertically integrated fresh produce company with operations spanning growing, processing, packing and wholesale operations.

Sweet Solanato tomatoes have an extraordinary high bloom and glossiness, which is retained from picking to plate. Developed as a healthy fresh snack, the tomatoes are juicy and firm with a thin skin to add to their fresh snacking appeal. They are also an ideal recipe ingredient, perfect for threading onto skewers or in sides and salads, whole or chopped. Sweet Solanato tomatoes work well as the hero ingredient or with complementary flavours such as herbs, cheese or meats.

Moraitis has been supplying Woolworths for around 40 years and hydroponic products for the last 10 years. Aside from tomatoes, Moriaitis also supplies Woolworths with other hydroponic products including; eggplant, cucumber and capsicum, delivering over 4000 tonnes on average annually.

At Moraitis, strict attention is paid to ensuring the use of cutting edge nutrient and IPM programs.

“We use a combination of 14 different nutrients, the formulation dependent on the plant requirements. The hydro irrigation system is operated by the Dutch Priva Computer system,” says Greg Prendergast.

“IPM management is a combination of highly trained staff members that monitor pest and diseases, recording hot spots in pest and diseases and then the appropriate integration management program being implemented.”

The main greenhouse site in Tatura is a combined area of five hectares, including the pad and fan technology glasshouse and conventional Dutch-style glasshouses. A propagation unit for the propagation of tomato, cucumber and eggplants is also attached to the site and is supplying grafted plants throughout Australia.

Greg Prendergast, production manager at Moraitis Tomatoes’ high-tech Tatura glasshouse in Victoria. The company has been supplying Woolworths with tomatoes since 2004, producing more than 2.5 million kilograms of tomatoes every year.

Greg Prendergast, production manager at Moraitis Tomatoes’ high-tech Tatura glasshouse in Victoria. The company has been supplying Woolworths with tomatoes since 2004, producing more than 2.5 million kilograms of tomatoes every year.

So what are some of the issues involved in such a largescale operation?

“The challenges associated with growing these days is to ensure that the product always exceeds customers’ expectations. The development of long-term quality staff that take on the culture of the Moraitis company has been key to our success,” Greg says.

“We are also in touch with changing market demand. Demand for snacking varieties has increased as it has for specialty varieties that offer a point of difference.

“We work closely with Woolworths to ensure we are meeting their requirements at all times,” he says.
“It is our key priority in the relationship with them.”

More information at: www.moraitis.com.au

About the author
Christine Brown-Paul is a Sydney-based journalist and regular contributor to PH&G with a special interest in the environment
and sustainable technology (email: c.brown.paul@gmail.com).

PH&G June 2013 / Issue #132


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