In the final part of this two-part series, PH&G talks to Hydro Produce, one of Woolworths’ ‘Fresh Food Farmers’ who grow hydroponic produce for Australia’s largest supermarket chain.
Australia’s ‘Fresh Food People’, Woolworths, has a stated commitment to source 96% of its fresh fruit and vegetables from farms across Australia. Woolworths stocks Australian fresh food wherever possible and only imports when local fruit and vegetables are out of season. Australia’s largest supermarket chain has around 3490 large and small Australian businesses, which supply produce.
“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 one of these ‘Fresh Food Farmers’—Hydro Produce—which grows hydroponic lettuce varieties for Woolworths.
Hydro Produce has been supplying Woolworths for over 20 years. In 1987, Charlie Cordina was growing hydroponic lettuce on his farm at Theresa Park on the outskirts of Western Sydney. Charlie saw a niche in the market for growing a high standard of fancy lettuce and believed that hydroponics was the solution to achieve consistently high quality produce.
With its head office at Sydney Markets Flemington, Hydro Produce came into being in 1994 with the launch of its market stand at the same location. By 1996, the growing business implemented its own full-scale warehouse and four years later introduced category management and category specific buying to tailor to customer demand.
The year 2004 saw Hydro Produce introduce herbs and fancy lettuce in sleeves to the marketplace, an innovation, which ensured extended shelf life, scanning integrity, product protection, traceability and ease of identification for consumers.
Supply commenced initially with fancy lettuce and herbs into NSW and now Hydro Produce supplies Woolworths nationally with a wide range of herbs, vegetables (leafy and hard), sweet potatoes, ginger and French shallots.
Hydro Produce’s Managing Director John Cordina has taken over control of the operation of Hydro Produce from his father Charlie, who still remains involved in the business in an overseeing and mentoring role.
Tony D’Orria is Hydro Produce’s Senior Account Manager for Woolworths. Tony is well placed to understand what Woolworths wants from its growers, having worked for the iconic supermarket chain in Sydney for 10 years, first as an assistant produce manager, then progressing through the ranks as a Produce Manager, Area Manager, State Buyer and National Business Manager.
“Woolworths is a major part of Hydro Produce’s business and the relationship has flourished over the years based on trust, loyalty and open communication,” Tony says.
“We grow five main hydroponic lettuce types for Woolworths, including Green Oak lettuce [Kiribati RZ variety for winter]–currently, we’re trialling the Kibrille RZ variety. We also grow Red Oak lettuce [Anikai RZ variety all year round]; Baby Cos Lettuce [Claudius RZ variety all year round]; Butter lettuce and; Combo lettuce, which is a mix of green and red oakleaf on the one root ball.
“The varieties are selected for their ability to produce full, compact, firm lettuce heads that are leafy and present well in a sleeve,” Tony says.
Hydro Produce supplies Woolworths along the Eastern Seaboard with significant quantities sourced from JV farm at Theresa Park along with a network of family growers related to Charlie and John.
In the greenhouse
Theresa Park was one of the first operations to grow fancy lettuce hydroponically and developed hail netting to protect the crops, now recognised as best practice. Today, the Theresa Park farm still supplies Woolworths with fancy lettuce but is now jointly owned with Charlie’s brother, George Cordina, who runs the business under the name, G & J Cordina.
At the Theresa Park farm, there is a total production area of 1.7 hectares, with 1.2 hectares covered by hail netting. All production in summer occurs under hail netting. The production area increases during winter to allow for the longer growing period.
“The area under hail netting is noticeably warmer and more humid. Hail netting has an expected lifespan of 15-20 years,” says George Cordina.
“In addition to the hail netting, most areas have retractable shade cloth covering. Shade cloth is 80% block-out, and is employed when daytime temperatures exceed 20C. This reduces stress on the plant during picking and assists to control transpiration and therefore wilting,” George says.
George Cordina uses a conventional hydroponic growing system at the Theresa Park site.
“The farm used to be based on nursery tubes but now uses 100mm x 50mm PVC channels with 50mm diameter holes cut at 250mm centres,” he says.
“Smaller tables consist of seven rows of channels that are 12 metres long. There is a 1.8% fall along the pipe to achieve effective drainage along the channels. We also have long tables that consist of seven rows of channels that are 24 metres long. The same 1.8% fall is achieved along the pipe.
“Solutions are mixed onsite from scratch and are standard recipe. The same nutrient solution is supplied throughout the whole growing system regardless of variety, age, or stage,” George says.
During summer the feeding focus is on supplying nutrients mainly at night.
“During the day the EC is allowed to drop. This avoids leaf burn associated with higher summer temperatures. Winter feeding is day and night,” George says.
“We monitor the feed tank throughout the day. The nutrient solution is dosed every night in summer and every morning in winter.
“The pumps supply nutrient solution on a pulse basis, that is, 10 minutes on, 10 minutes off. This is largely done to conserve power, which is a significant cost on the farm. The 10-minute window between feed on/feed off helps to avoid causing damage to the plants.
Pest and disease control at the farm is largely based on scouting.
“All plants and tables are inspected several times per day,” George says.
“Certain climatic conditions are known to promote pest and/or disease. For example, thrips are generally associated with windy weather in summer.”
Focus on quality
George Cordina says that apart from the normal challenges of running a business and producing a natural product, the biggest challenge is finding and keeping good people.
“Quality control is a critical part of supplying Woolworths so my staff must understand and deliver to the specifications expected from me,” he says.
“Other challenges are tracking costs and maintaining profitability. Electricity is a massive cost associated with hydroponic growing systems.
“Quality, Quality, Quality is the mantra that has been instilled into me by Hydro Produce. The elements can produce their challenges when it comes to consistent quality but our day-to-day focus is definitely on this,” George says.
“We have an area on the farm dedicated to new crop trialling and experimental work. It runs independently to the rest of the farm so I can isolate this area to carry out any trials or investigative works without affecting the rest of the farm. We are consistently trialling new varieties to maximise quality, yields and performance.”
George notes that over time, market demand for specific crops has definitely changed.
“The market demand has changed for varieties over the years. I used to grow Red Coral, Green Coral, Butterhead, and Mignonette lettuce varieties; but now I focus on Green Oak as my primary line with Red Oak and Baby Cos as secondary lines,” he says.
“As I’ve said though, quality is everything. I could produce three times the number of boxes each week, but I choose to operate at only one-third capacity because I know that I can control the quality.”
Peats Ridge Farm
While Hydro Produce has a vast network of growing partners, it also saw the need to purchase and set up its own growing arm that would focus on fresh herbs, a major component of its product range.
Set up in 2008, Hydro Produce’s farming arm (Tonic Trust) at Peats Ridge on the Central Coast Region of NSW, covers 56 acres, and currently produces hydroponically grown fresh herbs, Living Basil, kale and shallots.
“The farm has been producing for five years now and grows a wide range of herbs, shallots, Living Basil and kale,” says Hydro Produce Managing Director, John Cordina.
“We currently have around 10 acres under hothouse production with gas heating used during the colder months. The products are grown year-round, hydroponically in hothouses. We also have a field-grown rosemary crop on the farm.
“We grow a wide variety of herbs, including rosemary, thyme, lemon thyme, marjoram, chives, oregano, tarragon, curly parsley and continental parsley. Three new additions to the farm are Living Basil, kale and shallots,” John says.
Living Basil is exclusive to Woolworths and so-named because it is picked with its root ball intact so it is still living when harvested.
“To extend shelf life the customer can remove the basil from its protective sleeve and place into a tall glass of water on the kitchen bench. We communicate to the stores not to put the basil into the cool-room or refrigerated cabinet, as it does not like the cold,” he says.
“We encourage the stores to place the Living Basil with the tomatoes on the ambient display shelves.
“Living Basil is grown in the hothouses; hydroponically using the Nutrient Film Technique, a hydroponic growing technique wherein a very shallow stream of water containing all the dissolved nutrients required for plant growth is re-circulated past the bare roots in a watertight gully, also known as channels. The depth of the re-circulating stream is very shallow, little more than a film of water, hence the name ‘nutrient film’,” John says.
“We can address any growing deficiencies very quickly by feeding the required nutrients directly to the root ball via the water stream. Depending on the time of year, it can take from six weeks to 12 weeks from seeding to harvest.”
Another crop produced at Hydro Produce’s Peats Ridge site is kale. Prior to the Middle Ages, kale was one of the most commonly grown vegetables in Europe and today is gaining popularity worldwide because of its high fibre, vitamin and mineral content.
“Kale had been a huge success since its introduction to the farm around 18 months ago. On the back of increased awareness on kale we decided to put a room of kale into production and the growth has been very pleasing,” John says.
“It is grown hydroponically in bags of coco peat. Kale is from the cabbage family, however, it does not grow in a tightly bound head but on long stalks that cascade out from the stem to a frilly leaf.
“It is a very versatile product that can be cooked or eaten raw. It can be steamed, sautéed, boiled, and wilted through pastas or in a salad. Kale has also become a popular ingredient in juices and vegetable smoothies because of its high fibre and nutrient content,” he says.
Hydro Produce kale is packaged in a plastic protective sleeve.
“The bunch can be stored in the crisper of your refrigerator in the sleeve where you will find it keeps quite well for five to seven days,” John explains.
“The main challenge in growing is to continually strive to produce crops that meet the very high expectation of our customer. Little imperfections sometimes are not allowed so crops must be monitored very closely to ensure any potential quality issues are managed and addressed quickly.
“The market for fresh herbs reflects consumer demand—customers don’t want to waste an item once they have purchased it. As a result, smaller pack sizes have been developed so all of the portion purchased can be used,” he says.
“Recipe-sized packs now ensure 100% of a customer’s herb purchase is used. With this fact in mind, Living Basil was developed, as customers were very frustrated that this line in particular was not lasting once brought home.
“The explosion of cooking shows along with magazine and newspaper features have really given the herb category a major boost,” John says.
“More and more people are wanting to utilise fresh over dried and we are seeing continual growth in this category.”
More information about Hydro Produce at: www.hydroproduce.com.au
About the author
Christine Brown-Paul is a Sydney-based journalist with a special interest in the environment and sustainable technology Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
PH&G July 2013 / Issue 133