Issue 60: Australian Hydroponic & Greenhouse Conference

Issue 60
September/October – 2001
Story Title: Australian Hydroponic & Greenhouse Conference 2001
Author: Steven Carruthers

“Get Ready for Globalisation!”

Something exciting happened at the recent Australian industry conference. The level of enthusiasm and support by industry participants, government representatives and members of the public was overwhelming. At the end of the four-day conference, it seemed that after more than 10 years of fragmentation, the different industry sectors – retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers, commercial growers, researchers, home gardeners and educators – have all come together as one, clearly focused on the challenges ahead.

The Australian Hydroponic & Greenhouse Conference 2001 was held at the Mingara Recreation Club, Tumbi Umbi, on the Central Coast of NSW, from 29 July to 1 August 2001. The conference was attended by 275 delegates, speakers and official guests from Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, Panama, French Polynesia, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, South Africa, Holland and the United Kingdom. Nor did a week of gale force winds and torrential rain dampen the enthusiasm of more than 500 visitors who came to the trade exhibition on the opening day, and more than 400 guests who attended the opening of the new National Centre for Greenhouse Horticulture on the final day of the conference.

This was a conference with vitality, one that attracted considerable government and media interest, from its opening by the Deputy Premier of NSW, the Hon. Dr Andrew Reshauge, with the government’s message of support for an industry now valued at around $500 million at the farm gate, to the commissioning of a new research complex by the Minister for Agriculture, and for Land and Water Conservation, the Hon. Richard Amery. The conference also saw the NSW Special Minister of State, the Hon. John Della Bosca, address the industry’s Annual General Meeting with further messages of support.

The Keynotes
Globalisation, food quality and safety issues, and the welfare of farm workers, were strong messages in the keynote address delivered by Mr Tony Biggs, Editor of Good Fruit & Vegetables. By highlighting the strengths of hydroponic and greenhouse technologies for food and flower production, Mr Biggs was able to focus on the challenges ahead for the industry. His message was simple. In the production and marketing environment, it’s not a matter of if globalisation occurs, it’s already knocking at the horticulture door of Australian growers. It will happen, he warns, and it will impact on every grower and retailer, and on the consumer market, in the foreseeable future.

“If you happen to be a hydroponic tomato grower, then you probably don’t have much competition from overseas just yet. I say just yet advisedly, because I don’t believe that’s a condition which will remain forever,” said Mr Biggs.

“Clearly there is increasing global competition. You only have to visit Asian markets to find products from all over the world competing with products from Australia,” said the former Vice-Chairman of the Horticultural Research and Development Corporation (HRDC).

Mr Biggs added, while we like to say we have the competitive advantage because we’re clean and green, we don’t have a mortgage on being clean and green.

“We certainly do have a pristine environment, but we need to ensure that when we say we’re clean and green, that we can stand behind that statement, because sooner or later someone is going to challenge it. Are you sure you’re more clean and green than someone from another part of the world?”

Globalisation is already here. Mr Biggs pointed to the retail supermarket consolidation that recently occurred in Australia, which saw the collapse of Franklins, one of the three major supermarket chains, the carving-up of its supermarkets between the two rival chains, and the arrival of a new European-based supermarket chain.

“There are experts in retail sales who maintain that within the next 10 years, the retail industry around the world will be dominated by five or six major retailers. They are already there, and they are spreading their wings.”

“So, we have to live with retail consolidation,” said Mr Biggs.

Other challenges in the production and marketing environment of fresh produce, are food quality and safety issues, and sociological factors. Mr Biggs warns it’s going to get stricter in areas of chemical residues, and the impact of production on the environment. Global markets are not only interested in the way the crop is grown, but in sociological terms, they also want to know about the treatment of workers, such as pay and holiday conditions, age and work hours, and the conditions of the working environment. Mr Biggs reported that there are now growers in Costa Rica who allocate a substantial proportion of their crop return to improving the treatment of their workers and to develop training programs, to satisfy the big markets that they are doing the right thing sociologically with their workers.

And growers will need to fill in more forms if they are to compete successfully in global markets.

“I predict a new support industry will come along that will help growers do those administrative tasks,” said Mr Biggs. “Whether that’s provided by government or by other authorities, I don’t know, but it can be done more centrally.”

Mr Biggs ended his keynote address with the ultimate challenge for those involved in highly intensive horticultural production: to invest in appropriate systems, then manage them precisely in order to generate the necessary financial returns to justify the initial investment.

The second keynote session consisted of a forum to discuss the practical and legal aspects of pesticides involving the National Registration Authority, the Environmental Protection Authority, and the NSW Workcover Authority. Concerns about the effects of pesticides on the environment and on the health of the community are driving increasingly restrictive controls over the use of pesticides in agriculture. The community is increasingly unwilling to accept any level of environmental or food contamination because of questions about long-term consequences of pesticide exposure. Governments have responded to these concerns by imposing wide-ranging restrictions on the availability, storage and use of pesticides.

This keynote session provided some detail on how State and Commonwealth Governments cooperate to manage pesticide risks. The controls over storage and use of chemicals in the workplace are particular to each State, but have many elements in common. However, in many ways, the controls over pesticide use in NSW are more restrictive than in other states and reflect a hardening in attitude within the community towards irresponsible pesticide use.

THE SPEAKERS

Tony Biggs (Keynote)

Dr Keith Garzoli

Dr Lynette Morgan

Brian Gargiulo

Geoff Wilson

Han Van Der Goor

Len Tesoriero

SOME 0F THE DELEGATES

Conference Program
The conference program included two days of concurrent lectures across a broad range of topics. In all, there were 26 lectures, workshops and panels on offer to cater for all sectors of the industry. These included lectures on: Greenhouse heating and cooling; Getting started into commercial hydroponics; Waste management of water and nutrients; Practical integrated pest management; Environmental control of greenhouses; hydroponic nutrient management, and a workshop on how to take advantage of research levies. For retailers and educators, there were sessions on lighting, new products, retail success stories, staff training and hydroponic education, and e-commerce and online solutions. Horticulture Australia, an important sponsor of the conference, also provided a workshop on the results of their research and development projects. There were also special interest group sessions for tomato, cucumber, flower, lettuce and herbs growers, as well as a special group session for equipment retailers.

Globalisation
Did anybody sleep through the session entitled: Hydroponic Produce: a New Zealand Perspective, by Brian Gargiulo, President of the New Zealand Vegetable and Potato Growers Federation (VegFed)? The message was the same as the keynote. Get ready for globalisation, take strength from each other, and “honk” if you need help from your fellow grower or industry support organisations.

The benefits of a cohesive industry has meant that New Zealand growers will be well placed to compete on quality and price in their own as well as global markets, including its nearest neighbour – Australia. VegFed represent 97% of all commercial vegetable growers in New Zealand, around 4,500 growers who are working towards forming clusters of up to 100 growers to produce high quality fresh produce in large volumes for domestic and global markets. Growers are pooling their money and investing in the best technology money can buy.

“In New Zealand, we have started to do something about it (globalisation),” said Mr Gargiulo. “We (growers) have started to live on each other’s strength, and we are starting to see more (grower) collectives.”

Over recent years, NZ has gone from 1,400 tomato growers supplying the entire NZ market, to just seven suppliers.

“I believe, over the next 10-15 years we will be down to two suppliers,” predicted Mr Gargiulo, who is also the largest supplier of tomatoes on the South Island. “The same will happen in lettuce and cucumbers.”

“Australia won’t be any different,” he said.

“How far do you follow your produce through? Do you change your merchant agreement and hope like hell your broker will get more sales tomorrow?

“If growers continue with that attitude, over the next five to ten years they won’t be in business,” he warns. “Growers will have to have a greater understanding of how retailers’ want to sell their product. They are going to have to know their sales, and what retailers put on it,” he said. “Growers and retailers will need to work as one. If they don’t, their businesses won’t survive.”

Australia needs to get there very quickly,” Mr Gargiulo warns. “If you don’t, we certainly will. The challenge to produce the quality of product that you’re not producing now, is going to get harder, not easier. Imports are going to get higher, not less,” he said.

Mr Gargiulo said that with globalisation, growers will need to maintain the quality of their product against overseas imports, and they will need to ensure the wholesale merchant and retailers maintain that quality, so that consumer gets what they want every time, in the same way that fast-food giant MacDonalds can deliver exactly the same quality hamburger anywhere in the world. It means maintaining the cold chain from the farm gate through to point of sale.

“Are you using the best technology to grow your product,” challenged Mr Gargiulo. “Are you spending the money?

Mr Gargiulo told delegates that in the last four years, eight NZ operators have spent in the vicinity of NZ$30-$40 million on new equipment.

“Our customers are the best in the world. The equipment is the best the world can supply.”

Mr Gargiulo advised Australian growers that if they’re not producing 60kg/m2 for tomatoes in the next five to six years, then NZ growers will be in its backyard.

“The freight’s not a problem,” he said. “The currency (exchange rates) will pay for it. What’s stopping New Zealand (produce) getting into Australia is a few quarantine problems, but they will be fixed,” he said. “We will be growing exactly the same product you are growing, except we will be growing it in a very special manner.”

Mr Gargiulo said that NZ tomato growers plan to sophisticate their product in superb packaging, and that they will be able to grow it to a higher quality at a lower cost using the best technology the world has to offer.

“We might even get beaten,” said Mr Gargiulo. “And why would we get beaten? We’ll get beaten by the Dutch. They are not very far away from getting quarantine questions answered for this country. They are very close. Then you will have competition.”

Mr Gargiulo warned Australian growers not to be complacent about globalisation. The cost to produce and ship fresh produce from Europe to Australia is not an obstacle for Dutch suppliers, who can produce crops far cheaper than Australian growers. They do this by using the best technology available in the world. Dutch cargo jets are specifically designed to carry passengers and tonnes of fresh produce.The KLM website (www.klm.nl) lists 36 temperature-controlled cargo jets that ship fresh produce from Holland daily, from New York to Singapore.

“If your production (of tomatoes) is not up to 60kg/m2, you don’t have much time to get ready,” Mr Gargiulo said. “In Europe, they are already reaching 75kg/m2. They are not backyarders or part-timers. They are serious about their job; their investment is huge.”

Mr Gargiulo told conference delegates that NZ tomato growers alone had spent more than $15 million over the past two years to purchase sophisticated equipment, and the investment is rising.

“I’m sorry to say, there’s not many plastic greenhouses,” he said. “Most of it is glass. The NZ consumer will not pay for the grower’s inefficiency.”

Mr Gargiulo ended the session with an analogy on geese, who are said to work together as a community, draw strength from each other, and help each other out in times of distress. He advised Australian growers to do the same: to follow their industry leaders and to develop a sense of community. He urged growers to help each other, and to work closely with produce retailers.

“Don’t be scared to honk; don’t forget to honk,” he ended.

The Australian Reptile Park proved a popular alternative to the Nature Hike (sponsored by Green Air Products), which was cancelled owing to gale force winds. Adam Reynolds and Helen Aubert (top inset) get close with the resident python. The Park’s education officer and friend (bottom inset) bring visitors to the park closer to the reptiles.

SOME 0F THE EXHIBITS

Organic Hydroponics
One of the most popular sessions was a presentation on organic hydroponics, an area of interest for many growers and retailers. The session began with organic hydroponic certification issues by Dr Lynette Morgan and Simon Lennard. Dr Morgan reported that organically certified growers using hydroponic production techniques are becoming established in countries such as the US and Singapore. She predicts that many other ‘organically certifiable’ hydroponic or soilless commercial operations will be established in the near future in other countries.

In NZ, Dr Morgan said that hydroponic growers currently have the option of becoming organically certified under the AgriQuality CERTENZ standard, which does not exclude the use of soilless cultivation. However, the technology for large-scale, economically viable, organic hydroponic production of crops with a high nutrient requirement is still under development.

The second part of the session was a presentation by Mr Geoff Wilson, Executive Officer of The Urban Agriculture Network – Western Pacific, on organic hydroponics as a business opportunity. He told delegates that organic hydroponics is only just being tested as a business model: from an imprecise source of plant nutrients. He said there is a future for organic hydroponics, especially in urban and urban-fringe agriculture. The reason is because of the mounting problem of managing organic wastes in cities, wastes that can be used to produce plant nutrients.

“In Australia, the average citizen produces around 1.6 tonnes of waste a year that mostly goes to landfill,” he said. “A significant proportion of this waste, probably around 25% by weight, or more than 400kg a person, is in organic materials that can either be composted and returned to rural food production, or converted into hydroponic nutrients, through vermiculture, that can be used in urban and periurban agriculture.”

Mr Wilson described a feasibility study into a rooftop urban farming project, where wastes from six restaurants are put through a worm farm to extract soluble nutrients, which is then used to grow salad vegetables and herbs on the rooftop of a shopping centre complex. The fresh produce is then sold to the same restaurants that provided the wastes.

Iron Chelates
The session Chelated Micronutrients offered growers valuable information on using iron chelates. Presented by Mr Han van der Goor from Akzo Nobel’s Asia-Pacific headquarters in Singapore, he said that chelation of iron is essential in soilless culture, and the type of chelating agent should be chosen carefully based on the pH stability of the growing system.

In the Netherlands, Iron-DTPA is used by growers, because it is stable up to pH 7. It is typically used in nutrient solutions at around 1ppm. In Australia and the United States, growers use iron-EDTA, typically at 4-5ppm. However, Fe-EDTA is only stable up to pH 6. Above pH 6, Fe-EDTA starts to become insoluble, resulting in the formation and subsequent precipitation of iron phosphate or iron oxide. For solutions above pH 6, an iron deficiency will cause chlorosis in plants, and the precipitate can block drippers, and frequent cleaning of filters may be required.

Citing Dutch research which looked at the stability of iron chelates, Mr Goor said that growers who use Fe-EDTA will lose over half their iron within an hour, compared to Fe-DTPA which retains 90% of its iron after one hour in solution, and more than half after several days. This explains why Dutch growers use less iron (1ppm) in their mixes.

Top – The Minister for Agriculture, Richard Amery, congratulates Dr David Hall, Director of the new National Centre for Greenhouse Horticulture.

Bottom – The official opening of the new research facility was attended by more than 400 industry participants.

Chelating agents are organically produced compounds which form a stable complex with metal ions. The chelating agent protects the metals from other chemicals and causing precipitation.

Farms Visits
With its ideal climate, easy access to markets, and growing industry infrastructure, the Central Coast region of NSW is positioning itself to become the ‘Hydroponics Centre of Australia’. On the fourth and final day of the conference, industry delegates had the opportunity to visit a range of operating hydroponic farms and greenhouse facilities in the region, growing a variety of hydroponic crops in different systems and media.

Farm visits included Swan Hydroponics, a modern one-hectare hydroponic greenhouse facility growing tomatoes for supermarkets and export markets; and Pacific Hydroponics, a two hectare lettuce/herb farm that supplies airlines and supermarkets. This farm also had on-site processing equipment that included Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) technology. Of special interest was a new organic hydroponic research facility trialling cucumbers and tomatoes in cocopeat media. Delegates also visited a flower farm growing a range of cut flowers.

The farm tour and conference ended on a high note with the opening of the National Centre for Greenhouse Horticulture by the NSW Minister for Agriculture and Land and Water Conservation, the Hon. Richard Amery, and the commissioning of a new AU$372,000 greenhouse research complex. At the official ceremony, attended by more than 400 industry participants, NSW Departmental officers, government officials, and a large media contingent, Mr Amery announced NSW Agriculture will provide the new centre with an annual budget of $5 million and jobs for four new research horticulturists and a plant pathologist.

“All five of the new staff will provide a service, not only to the Central Coast industry, but to other greenhouse and horticulture growers across the state,” Mr Amery said.

The new complex includes two large Harford-designed greenhouses for demonstration of industry best practices and research projects. The new research facility also includes four smaller greenhouses for IPM research purposes.

Top – The new research conplex includes this Harford designed, single skin “Maxi Span” measuring 18.4 x 27m with 9.2m clear span.

Bottom – The growing system is 25% NFT on raised steel beds, and 75% run-to-waste with cocopeat.

“These facilities will ensure that the centre continues to undertake a leading role in the development of the protected cropping industry,” Mr Amery said.

Other Highlights
Other highlights of the conference included the conference dinner and presentation of ‘Best Exhibit’ and ‘Outstanding Contribution to Industry’ awards, sponsored by Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses magazine. Best Exhibit was judged by the NSW Special Minister of State, the Hon. John Della Bosca, and awarded to Organic Crop Protectants. Runner-up Best Exhibit was Ace Hydroponics.

The recipient of the ‘Outstanding Contribution to Industry’ award was Dr Stephen Goodwin, who was recognised by the Australian Hydroponic & Greenhouse Association (AHGA) for his work in Integrated Pest Management and Biocontrols, and for his valuable contribution to Bumblebee studies in Australia.

(see our Profile in this issue)

Top – Publisher & Editor Steven Carruthers presents Dr Stephen Goodwin (right) with the AHGA award for “Outstanding Contribution to Industry 2001”

Bottom – Minter Leyland of Organic Crop Protectants accepts the award for “Best Exhibit”.

The major sponsors for the Australian Hydroponic & Greenhouse Conference 2001 were Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses magazine, Wyong Shire Council, Horticulture Australia, NSW Agriculture, and the Central Coast Regional Development Corporation.


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