July/August – 1998
Story Title: No Waste Farm
Author: Steven Carrunthers
Optimising space and production performance are familiar elements to the Hinchcliffe Hydroponics operation, but what makes this farm so unique is the quality and range of lettuce varieties which are grown. Situated near Cessnock.
Optimising space and production performance are familiar elements to the Hinchcliffe Hydroponics operation, but what makes this farm so unique is the quality and range of lettuce varieties which are grown. Situated near Cessnock, in the Hunter Valley region of NSW, the Hinchcliffe farm has made its mark by supplying a wide range of colourful lettuce varieties and salad mixes for local and export markets.
As a former interior decorator, Di understands her markets well, where colour, small leaves, and ‘something different’ are common themes among the many restaurateurs and chefs they service. To meet this marketing challenge, lettuce and salad mix varieties are carefully selected for colour, shape, leaf size, texture, taste, and shelf-life.
However, the most popular line among restaurateurs and chefs was innovated by the Hinchcliffes themselves. The Salad Delight is a combination of four selected lettuce varieties (Red Velvet, Red and Green Oak and a mignonette type) grown in one cell, to give a splash of colour, shape, size and texture, in one product. From a marketing viewpoint, the cell produces the desirable smaller leaves and colour in a single product; from a production viewpoint, the product is harvested and sold in half the time it takes to grow a single line.
The Hinchcliffes also continue to grow and market fancy lettuce lines that have long been discontinued by seedling companies. In some cases, older lettuce varieties have been lost forever. However, Maurie and Di continue some ‘forgotten’ lines at the request of providors, who like to offer something a little different to their customers. Red Lace is one such line that’s continued by the Hinchcliffe’s. Popular among restaurateurs and chefs in the Valley, it is a fast grower noted for its high production yields.
The end product that leaves the farm gate for the local markets is a box containing 6 fulsome lettuce, embracing a range of varieties and colours, and individually bagged with the roots emersed in a water-filled plastic container. While adding an extra labour and material cost to the end product, the Hinchcliffe’s fetch a high price for their quality lettuce.
The Hinchcliffe reputation for quality was recently demonstrated at the 1998 Royal Sydney Easter Show, Australia’s premier agricultural show. Representing the Lotus Red Network, the Hinchcliffes won 1st prize in the Lettuce Section for the 6th consecutive year. Each entry consisted of two lettuce varieties of the grower’s choice, with three plants submitted for each variety. The judging was based on uniformity of size, trueness to variety, quality, and ‘freedom’ (free of pathogens). The Hinchcliffe’s also took out first prize in the Group Herb Section with their sweet basil.
The Hinchcliffes also grow selected lettuce and herb varieties suitable for salad mixes, with Cressida and Red Lace popular ingredients. According to Di, the vigorous Red Lace is a cross between Red Coral and Red Oak.
“When cut, they bounce back and are ready to be re-cut quickly,” she explains.
“However, when you cut them when they are small, you get a Monet-type plant which has lots of fingers, which is what the salad mix wants.
“As growers, we are looking for high production varieties, and I think the Cressida has good export potential,” explains Maurie, “but it’s competing against Red Coral and Red Oak,” he reasons.
The Cressida is mainly grown for the salad mixes, where it is cut up to four times before discarding. The plant regenerates after each cut. “I use the Cressida in the salad mix, because I know the restaurants like it,” added Di.
Another popular variety grown by the Hinchcliffes is mini-Cos, which is grown shoulder to shoulder in an NFT nursery system, to encourage small hearts.
“I want the creamy, boat leaves,” commented Di. “You still get the same weight, but you get the little heart,” she added.
Two recent lettuce varieties have caused some excitement amongst restaurateurs and chefs in the Valley. The Freckle Romaine and Freckle Mignonette with their red speckles, add an ‘exotic’ element to the salad mix. The inner leaves of the Freckle Mignonette have proved popular for their soft, creamy colour.
The Hinchcliffes also grow what they call Red French, a Batavian-style lettuce popular with local restaurateurs for its ability to hold heat.
“It doesn’t go limp when added to a hot dish, it holds its structure; it’s very sweet to eat, and it’s crunchy,” explains Maurie.
Other unusual salad varieties grown on the Hinchcliffe farm include Red-Stem Beetroot, Red-Stem Dandelion, and the Asian herb Munatina, which Di calls ‘Moon Grass’. This ribbon-shaped herb is used in salad mixes for decoration, and by chefs to wrap appetisers.
“It grows better in the greenhouse than outside, where it gets too tough,” comments Di.
Over the years, the Hinchcliffes have fine-tuned their varietal range to satisfy a range of markets and tastes.
“Many varieties are bitter while still growing, but when you cut and wash lettuce, and let it stand for half an hour in the refrigerator, the bitterness turns to sweetness,” she explains.
Di admits that not all varieties are bitter when first cut, but most are. Radicchio and Dandelion are added to their lettuce and salad mix to add a bitter element to their range.
The Hinchcliffes stay in close touch with the markets they service. According to Di, restaurateurs are swinging away from fancy lettuce to some extent, because they are now commonly available in most restaurants.
“I try to get new varieties all the time to keep them stimulated, and I preserve particular lines for other customers, ” said Di.
“I don’t have any waste,” she explains. “Anything that doesn’t work, goes into the salad mix.
“This is what you call the ‘no waste farm’,” she added as an afterthought.
Hinchcliffe Hydroponics is also a supplier of fancy lettuce to the Lotus Red Network, for export to Asian markets. As founding grower members of Lotus Red, Maurie and Di have committed several tables to grow Red Coral, Red Oak and Butter lettuce for the Asian markets.
Future plans include expansion into protective cropping, but having just experienced one of the hottest summers on record, the immediate plan is to split the single growing system into three, with larger holding tanks so the water doesn’t get as hot. Under the present arrangement, three or four days of continuous high temperatures can lead to crop failure.
“We got away with it, until this past summer,” lamented Di.
The single system consists of 65 tables x 18 metre lengths, with 7- 8 runs per table. As a result, in summer, the large surface area heats the solution quickly.
At the other end of the climate spectrum, as winter approaches, the water temperature often drops below zero. Frosts are also common. During these times, the solution temperature is kept at 6 degrees with the aid of a heater, and the lettuce survive. The selection of winter varieties is crucial to maintaining year-round production.
Packing & Presentation
Maurie and Di have put as much thought and care into their export markets, as they have in the local markets. Packing under cover and product presentation are important steps in their quality control.
“The industry is doing itself a disservice in the way lettuce is displayed in supermarkets,” admonished Di.
“We increase our shelf life to 2 weeks because we pack our lettuce in water containers, with the product and container covered with a plastic carry bag.
Presenting their product in the form of a self-contained crisper has allowed the Hinchcliffe’s to command a higher price for their product.
“Okay, I have to spend a litle more on labour and packaging, but I get a lot more for my product,” she explains. “It allows me to niche market to customers who wouldn’t normally buy fancy lettuce,” she added.
Packing under cover is also essential, to ensure the product leaves the farm dry. According to Di, wet product is not desirable for export markets. Di is currently investigating the use of media pads that absorb moisture, similar to those used in the meat industry.
Water for the growing system is drawn from a 7-megalitre dam, which has been carefully sculptured into the natural gully line. Sixteen acres of virgin bushland between the dam and a busy highway has turned this idyllic water reserve into a flora and fauna sanctuary. Kingfishers and kangaroos are frequent visitors to the dam. As a former builder, Maurie is currently building a new family home that overlooks this idyllic setting, away from the daily workings of the farm.
Water treatment is confined to a flocculating agent (aluminium sulphate) to settle the clay, and a measured dose of chlorine to combat pathogens. The Hinchcliffes are planning to install a sand filter not too far down the track. In the meantime, the main defence strategy against disease and virus getting into the system is a daily dose (100 ml) of Hydro Clear, a hydrogen peroxide and silver colloid-based antioxidant, which is added to 20,000 litres of system solution. Anecdotal evidence points to better root growth and healthier plants, stimulated by increased oxygenation.
“We don’t get severe pythium problems unless we get heat damage,” explains Maurie.
The Hinchcliffes believe the oxygen enriched feed solution played a crucial role in rejuvenating root growth during the height of last summer, when their crop was almost lost to heat damage and pythium.
Contrary to some claims, hydrogen peroxide products don’t remove algae from the growing system, or kill all viruses. The Hinchcliffes still experience Big Vein virus from time to time during the colder weather.
“Algae tells us our system is healthy,” commented Di.
As founding members of the Lotus Red Hydroponic Grower Network, Maurie and Di have played an active part in developing its structure, and establishing its export protocols. From sending sample products to Asian importers in mid 1997, they now fill export orders twice a week. According to Di, the shape of their business is changing since they joined the network.
“Lotus Red needs more basic lines than I usually have, and I’ve had to cut some lines out to meet the export demand,” she explains. “So, I’ve got to be realistic. Things are changing and we’ve just got to move with it.”