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Issue 106: Passionate Producer of Culinary Herbs

May/June 2009
Author: Steven Carruthers

In the face of domestic and global financial uncertainty, one Australian producer of fresh culinary herbs is thriving, expanding its operations to supply an increasingly demanding market.

Cooling the microclimate in the late afternoon.

Freshzest Pty Ltd has reached a new milestone with the construction of a 1ha glasshouse at Caniaba, near Lismore, in northern NSW. While the company has supplied the Melbourne market generally and Woolworths with fresh culinary herbs in Victoria and Tasmania for the past 20 years from its greenhouses located in South Gippsland, the new glasshouse expands the business with the delivery of high quality fresh herbs during Victoria’s winter season, as well as to the Brisbane market.

Freshzest founder Robert Hayes.

The seed for the Freshzest business was planted in the late 1970s when the newly created European Community blocked Australian dairy products. Among the casualties was the Hayes dairy farm on Mornington Peninsula, south of Melbourne. Only son Robert Hayes took over the business in 1976 and immediately set about finding an alternative living for the farm. At first he experimented with organics and biodynamics to grow herbs for the ‘dried’ market as an import replacement, but the farm soon switched to fresh culinary herbs for the retail market. Starting with a crop of basil, in his first week Rob took orders for 400 bunches at 50 cents, the second week he came back with orders for 1,000 bunches at 75 cents, and in the third and subsequent weeks 1,500 bunches at $1. Eight weeks later he walked into the bank and paid out the dairy farm overdraft, then promptly switched banks.

The new 1ha glasshouse in northern NSW expands the Freshzest business.

“They had not treated us well even though the family had been with the bank for over 50 years,” recalls Rob.

In the early 80s he read about hydroponics and the Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) developed in the UK by Dr Allan Cooper. By 1982 Rob had started his own R&D in hydroponics, building a small greenhouse in South Gippsland near Leongatha, the site of the current Freshzest operation, experimenting with NFT, flood and drain and sand-bed systems while maintaining a consultancy business in Melbourne. Invariably, when he returned to the farm after long absences he found the NFT crop dead, the flood and drain system either sick or dead, but nearly always the sand-bed crop was alive and healthy.

Growing beds include sand and perlite media.

“The simplicity and the buffer that the sand mass provides meant a crop could ride it out in the event of a power failure,” noted Rob.

Robert Hayes confers with the horticulturist.

Today, the business is no longer just one man’s experimental passion but involves an expanding team of managers, horticulturists, supervisors, administrators, growers, harvesters, packers and sub-contractors. With an integrated Quality Management System (incorporating Quality, HACCP, OH&S and other systems) in place, the company uses every means available to ensure its product range is on retailers’ shelves in less than 48 hours after picking, to established premium standards, freshness, maximum shelf-life and piquancy. Although still a relatively young man, Rob has stepped back from the business to spend more time with his family, but he can’t stop himself from having a hands-on role, helping to tweak the new state-of-the-art glasshouse facility.

Location, location, location
With the rising cost of energy, the main issue for the Victorian operation in recent years has been the high cost of LP gas heating during winter-time production.

“It’s a very expensive business these days given what’s happened with the price of oil,” said Rob. “It was clear a couple of years ago that we needed to establish a northern growing operation for the winter-time period,” he said.

From a carbon footprint perspective it made sense for Freshzest to establish a growing facility in a warmer climate. According to Rob, preliminary anaylsis of the carbon inputs for Freshzest’s two sites, producing herbs in a warm climate reduces the carbon footprint by approximately 80% compared to the Victorian operation, even after the product is shipped to Melbourne.

The key criterion for location was sufficient sunlight to grow optimally through the coolers months of the year, between April and September. The secondary consideration was climate over the rest of the year. This led Rob to analyse solar radiation data, which pointed to several suitable sites in the Northern Rivers region of NSW.

“There were a number of boxes we wanted to tick off on,” said Rob. “Elevation to avoid floods and a good quality water supply were obvious requisites. Sunshine hours and climatic factors were big ones. After pressing the go button it took 18 months to find a suitable property.”

A perfect climate for lemon grass production.

Nestled in a cluster of hills between two mountain valleys, the 18ha Caniaba property includes a large catchment dam, which is also fed by an underwater spring. Two hectares have been approved for glasshouse development, giving Freshzest the option to double its northern production. Previously a macadamia plantation, most of the trees have been cleared in preparation to planting kaffir lime, curry leaf and some larger crops like lemon grass and rosemary to increase the range and volume of fresh culinary herbs. Once established, this in-field production will also assist with general maintenance around the glasshouse, and managing the immediate environment outside the glasshouse.

The glasshouse
The glasshouse is a Faber design similar to the Dutch Venlo-style glasshouse with 8-metre spans, 4.5 metres between the posts or bays, 5 metres to the gutter, and 20% floor to roof area ventilation. For simplicity, Freshzest opted for a laser-guided gravel floor with a 1:300mm fall every 100 metres from one end of the glasshouse to the other.

Shade screens and circulation fans play an important role in climate control.

The internal glasshouse fittings include LS Climate Control aluminium screens, circulation fans, overhead fogging system, and infra-red camera to measure plant temperature. When fully operational, the Caniaba glasshouse will follow European trends and monitor plant temperature to control the internal microclimate.

Plant temperature is monitored by infra-red technology.

“Plant temperature is what we need to focus on,” said Rob. “It’s like taking body temperature when you’re feeling crook.”

Rob Hayes tweaking the Priva climate control system.

An external weather station at roof height measures wind strength and direction, humidity and outside temperature. This data feeds into a Priva climate control system to maintain an optimum internal temperature between 22 and 24˚C.

CO2 levels are monitored day and night.

The vents do not include thrips screens, but Rob wouldn’t have it any other way. While the crop is open to flying pests, the open vents also bring beneficial insects that minimise pest infestations.

“The Northern Rivers region is ‘bug central’. There are more insects per m2 than anywhere else I have experienced,” said Rob. “Any hope of maintaining a bug-free growing environment in this climate is futile,” he added.

IPM scout Karen Morse spreads Monty, a beneficial predator mite.

Since commencing growing operations, the IPM team have discovered a new native beneficial insect that predates on Western Flower Thrips (WFT), an exciting find for Australia where there are few beneficial insects available to growers compared to their counterparts in Europe and North America. WFT is responsible for billions of dollars in crop losses worldwide each year with no effective control in sight. The discovery and promise of the Orrius beetle, and the effectiveness of the IPM program at Caniaba Farm, will be discussed in more detail in our next issue by consulting entomologists Stephen Goodwin and Marilyn Steiner.

Although the region has experienced hailstorms, the new glasshouse is located in a rain shadow, a local weather phenomenon that also minimises cloud cover and increases sunshine hours. In the event of hail, experience has already shown that the 4mm toughened glass will withstand golf balls, but maybe not cricket balls. The new facility is insured by Agricola Crop Insurance for both the glasshouse structure and crop, including lost wages and clean-up costs.

“I couldn’t sleep without it,” says Rob. “Although it comes at a high cost, insurance is essential risk management.”

According to Rob the limiting factor of the glasshouse is the high temperatures in summer.

“We’ve just gone through our first summer and it’s not too bad from a vegetative production perspective,” says Rob. “The problem is more to do with the human population working inside the glasshouse where the climate is hot and humid. Having said that, we have been able to keep the temperature a couple of degrees below ambient using screens, fogging and ventilation,” he added.

Although the glasshouse has been in production for nine months, Rob is still tweaking the climate control system with room to lower summer-time internal temperatures even further.

The glasshouse has created 23 new job opportunities in the region.

The Caniaba Farm has created new job opportunities for locals in the region. The workforce includes a farm manager, senior horticulturist, horticulturist, IPM scout, site foreman, admin and logistics officer, maintenance officer, and 17 staff involved in harvesting and processing.

The growing system
The growing system consists of waist-height benches filled with a proprietary blend of different grade sand. Poly sheets between the sand bed and metal benches prevent corrosion. Each bench is approx. 7 metres in length and 1.5 metres wide. With enough room for workers to go about their tasks, the island nature of the sand beds plays an important role in the IPM program to restrict the movement of non-flying pests.

A typical growing bed in full production.

Freshzest cultivate 15 different herbs for the retail market including this healthy bed of chives.

The irrigation system consists of a series of white poly tubes running in parallel down the length of each sand bed. The built-in turbo flow emitters give an even balance of moisture throughout the sand bed. Runoff solution is collected at the low end of each bench and returned to external recirculation tanks. There are six recirculation storage tanks sited near the dam with a combined capacity of 120,000 litres.

End-to-end sand beds share a single return drain to the recirculating tanks.

The facility has the option to run two nutrient regimes based on crop and R&D requirements. Irrigation cycles are triggered by solar accumulation sensors with max/min cycle times automatically calculated around that. Returning solution is blended with fresh water and fresh feed designed to replace that which has been taken out of solution by plants.

Since growing operations commenced there has been no solution discharge from the recirculation system. Eventually, discharge water will be used on the field crops. To date the only disease problems experienced have been phytophera and alternaria fungus in sage.

“Typical of these things, it’s nothing except that we gave it the wrong conditions by overwatering. We’re now running the sage beds drier and it’s as happy as Larry,” said Rob.

Bunches of herbs are collected by trolley for the washing and packaging operation.

He added that the dam water is very clean with only about 16ppm of sodium and a little bit of iron. Make-up water is pumped from the dam into tanks and chlorinated. Sanitised water is then distributed into storage tanks that supply both fertigation systems, and for general use in the pack house. Roof water is also captured and routed to storage tanks, with two 22,000L dedicated tanks supplying filtered and UV treated water for drinking and kitchen use.

Water storage and recirculation tanks are sited near the catchment dam.

Washing and packaging station after the day’s work.

Final remarks
Freshzest is a passionate producer of culinary herbs where quality, freshness and piquancy are everything. During my visit to the Caniaba Farm in early autumn the new glasshouse was in full production and running smoothly. In these uncertain economic times, if there was any nervousness about the company’s multi-million dollar investment, or the future, it wasn’t in evidence here.

“I’m glad I’m in the real economy,” laments Rob. “We employ people, we grow quality food, and I think there will always be a market for our products. It has its ups and downs, but at this stage I’m optimistic the Australian economy won’t go into freefall like other economies.”

Marketing Manager Jen Westphal is responsible for developing new markets.

According to Rob the global economic downturn has changed eating habits. While the average consumer has gone slightly down market, herbs are still on the weekly shopping list.

“People who were eating out in restaurants a couple of times a week are now going home with a nice cut of meat and fresh herbs to cook up,” says Rob. “They are discovering the joys of cooking again.”

So what is the future for the herb industry?
“The Australian population has gone from Anglo food styles such as bangers and mash to a far more cosmopolitan home cooking style,” says Rob. “That started in the late 80s, accelerated during the 90s, and has continued through the noughties. There are still huge opportunities to grow the herb market,” concludes Rob.

About Faber Glasshouses
New Zealand’s leading glasshouse manufacturer, Faber Glasshouses Ltd, continues to deliver a host of innovations for the benefit of their customers throughout Australasia. Some of the recent innovations include: aluminium gutters, toughened glass roofs, low-iron glass, solid concrete bases, and energy-saving screens. They also have a ground-breaking new nursery glasshouse in development.

Faber produces glass and plastic-clad greenhouses from their sophisticated manufacturing plant in Waiuku, Franklin. The company invests heavily in technology – including robotics and CNC-machining – to achieve consistently high standards for their local and export clients.

Faber’s general manager, Peter Holwerda, says the company’s modular design provides growers with huge flexibility in terms of their ‘limitless’ size options. Faber glasshouses can range from a relatively modest 250m2 up to an impressive 8ha under one roof, which is their largest example to date.

“We have moved towards modular design to give growers greater scalability in their operations,” explains Peter.

“We are seeing a trend towards larger houses – and the economies of scale can be very favourable. It’s often cost-effective for growers to increase the size of their area, given the relatively small increase required in staffing, irrigation and energy needs.”

Peter says all Faber glasshouses are manufactured with the same high-spec features, regardless of size.

“Every glasshouse, with post heights from 3m up to 6m, has the same engineering behind it – so it’s super-strong. Our glasshouses support all types of crops and crop growing systems.”

Faber now provide the latest design in aluminium guttering – that takes up less glasshouse surface area for better light transmission, and requires fewer internal downpipes. They also offer toughened glass for the roof (which shatters in tiny pieces instead of dangerous large shards) for greater safety. For additional stability and permanence, a solid concrete plinth under all external walls has replaced the previous fibrolite panels.

Other Faber innovations include low-iron glass, ideal for winter growing; and shade and energy-saving screens for heat conservation of up to 50%. Another major innovation is Faber’s new nursery design, which is currently in development. Believed to be the first of its type in Australasia, the glasshouse features a glass roof that can be opened 100%.

“This is available in Europe but not in New Zealand or Australia,” says Peter.

“The roof is totally controllable – it can be opened to harden off small plants, and closed to protect them. Because the plants don’t need to be moved in and out of the glasshouse, it offers far less handling along with greater security and protection.”

There has already been interest from local growers in the new nursery design, and Faber reports more details will be released later in the year.

For further information contact:
Faber Glasshouses (Australia) Pty Ltd,
PO Box 290, Lilydale, Vic 3140
Faber Glasshouses (NZ) Ltd,
PO Box 36, Waiuku, NZ
Freecall Australia: 1800 132 237
Freecall NZ: 0800 100 618
Email: sales@apexgreenhouses.com.au
Website: http://apexgreenhouses.com.au/  Ω

PH&G May/June 2009 / Issue 106

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