May/June – 2004
Author: Steven Carruthers
Flavorite takes another bold step to consolidate its position as the leader in the Australian hydroponic tomato industry.
The Flavorite story really began in 1988 when Mark Millis, an existing tomato grower, teamed up with Warren Nichols, an experienced marketer of fresh fruit and vegetables, to grow hydroponic tomatoes at Warragul, in the heart of Victoria’s Gippsland, about 100 kilometres from Melbourne. At the time, there were only three growers in Victoria producing hydroponic tomatoes.
Mark and Warren realised early on that there was a growing demand for red, flavoursome tomatoes. They felt field-grown tomatoes that were picked green and ripened with CO2 in cool rooms weren’t meeting the demand from customers. Faced with this challenge, they set out with a vision to grow a juicy red tomato with good appearance and flavour that would become the Flavorite hallmark.
In the beginning, there were 3,000 square metres of tomatoes on the farm. In its first year, the farm produced 80 tonnes of tomatoes worth $240,000. Today, the farm has expanded to accommodate more than 60,000 square metres of plants, and in the 2004 season, Flavorite’s turnover is expected to exceed $20 million for the first time. This milestone will be made possible by the commission of a new 2ha cutting edge glasshouse facility at Warragul, the largest of its kind in Australia, and a 2ha polyhouse in Bundaberg with marketing partners HMG (Horticultural Management Group), to expand the southern winter markets and keep tomatoes more affordable during the cooler months.
HMG has invested an initial $5 million into its Bundaberg site, which will see the expansion of the site increase from 13,000sqm to 33,000sqm, with a state-of-the-art packhouse attached. Flavorite will exclusively market the fruit produced from this agreement, as well as provide technical advice in the greenhouse and packing shed. HMG has adopted the high standards of Flavorite to produce both truss and premium single tomatoes to the exacting Flavorite quality specification.
Chris O’Connor of HMG said that the reason HMG were prepared to align themselves exclusively with Flavorite, was due to the commitment that Warren Nichols and Mark Millis had to the industry. The fact that Flavorite has a long-term industry vision, focused on quality, and is a significant grower in their own right, vertically integrated, with direct contact to the supermarkets and wholesale markets, removed many of the business risks for HMG.
The ongoing significance of the partnership lies in the commitment of HMG to invest a further $10 million over the next five years to increase the Bundaberg greenhouse area to around 100,000sqm.
Flavorite not only grow their own tomatoes, but pack and market single and truss tomatoes for many leading growers located throughout Australia who meet the strict Flavorite quality specifications. “Other growers provide 50% of the product to the famous Flavorite brand,” Mark Millis told his audience of more than 400 growers, industry specialist, community business leaders and Flavorite staff who had gathered for the official glasshouse opening. “They’ve grown with us, and they make a big contribution to the development of our company,” he acknowledged.
These affiliated growers benefit from marketing under the famous Flavorite brand, which has become a quality trademark for premium tomatoes throughout Australia.
The Warragul site includes a newly renovated packing shed, which has increased Flavorite’s packing capacity three-fold. The new grading line incorporates an automatic conveyor belt system with recording facilities for date stamping, grower coding and labelling.
Flavorite also pack trusses or bunches of tomatoes into pre-packs, which the company introduced into the market 18 months ago. “There’s a big swing to them mainly because of the actual way that a truss ripens itself, from the top of the truss down,” said Flavorite Sales Manager, Caleb Rudd.
Pre-packed truss tomatoes also have other benefits. Prior to the advent of tamper resistant pre-packs, consumers would often separate single tomatoes from the stem with only around 40% of truss tomatoes going through the register. “Since the introduction of Flavorite pre-packs, the scan rate is about 98%,” said Caleb.
Pre-packs also eliminate product bruising from excessive handling. Arie Baedle, the principal of Rijk Zwaan Seeds, said that growers need to really take note of what the green stem means. “From research around the world, we know that with every handling, a tomato will immediately lose flavour and shelf-life. Therefore, the green stem is the buyer guarantee that the tomato has been carefully handled, that it has full flavour, and it tells the consumer it is a greenhouse grown hydroponic tomato,” said Arie.
New Glasshouse facility
The new glasshouse is a significant building in many ways, and represents a coming of age for the Australian greenhouse industry.
“It’s a quantum leap forward in tomato production capabilities,” said Mark Millis .
“It shows that we can create buildings that can cost-effectively produce tomatoes to meet the demand that’s growing in the marketplace. He added that the new glasshouse would force Flavorite competitors to make similar investments, and he welcomed the challenge.
“The industry can only benefit from having more quality production,” he said. “This building is going to spawn more buildings like it, and it’s going to happen quickly as other growers and investors understand its capabilities,” he predicted.
The new glasshouse is significant because of the technology that’s involved in it. The glasshouse includes the latest irrigation and fertigation equipment, a cost-effective natural gas heating system that includes CO2 extraction to increase plant yields, and a computer system that automatically opens and closes roof vents, activates internal misting, or covers the crop with thermal/shade covers to maintain optimum growing conditions inside the glasshouse. In extreme heat conditions, the computer will also activate sprinklers on the roof to cool the inside environment.
Designed and installed by Faber Glasshouses Australia, the 2ha (19, 840sqm) building took around eight weeks to complete. Constructed from steel, aluminium and toughened glass, the building has a gutter height from 5 to 5.1 metres, measured from the underside of the gutters, with a typical Venlo-style roof ventilation system of 20%.
“The height of the greenhouse is important to create an even air buffer above the whole crop,” said Faber Glasshouse Australia Managing Director, George Jonker. “The air buffer will ensure that temperature fluctuations are handled in such a way as to prevent the crop from stressing.”
Mr Jonker said that the height of the greenhouse is only one part of a combination of design features and other equipment that are arranged in such a way to benefit plant production and minimise the risk of crop damage from excessive environmental changes. The glasshouse is fitted with the latest environmental control technology, including thermal/shade screens above the plants that automatically cover and uncover the crop (depending on solar radiation) to maintain optimum growing conditions. Automatic misting outlets are located below the thermal/shade screens, should they be called upon to cool the glasshouse down, or increase humidity. Temperature, light and humidity sensors located throughout the glasshouse constantly feed information back to the ‘Integral’ computer system that maintains optimum growing conditions.
Hanging gutter growing system
The hanging gutter hydroponic system is also an integral part of the new Flavorite production system that delivers product 365 days of the year all over Australia. According to Vaughn Pearce, Managing Director of Agrihort Irrigation Systems, the hanging gutters produce a higher crop yield compared to hydroponic growing systems on the ground. Agrihort Irrigation Systems were contracted by Flavorite to design and install the growing system now popularly used in Europe to grow hydroponic tomatoes.
Mr Pearce attributes the increased tomato yield to better air flow around plants, and better light penetration in winter.
“The benefits of the hanging gutter are increased production as a result of disease reduction through better ventilation around the crop, as well as excellent drainage control. When you combine this with production increases from interplanting, the results are undeniable, ” said Mr Pearce.
Another strong benefit of the hanging gutter is the convenient height for workers to manage the crop.
During the colder months, heating pipes on the ground, that double as trolley rails, radiate their warmth upwards through the crop as warm air rises. Barely visible under the hanging gutters are plastic ducts which run horizontally down each row, enriching the environment around the plants with CO2 extracted from the natural gas-fuelled boiler.
With a planting density of three plants per square metre, the new facility houses 50,000 tomato plants. The life of a plant is between nine to 12 months and each plant will produce 20 to 25kg of tomatoes. Over a 12-month period, the new glasshouse is expected to yield an average of 20kg per square metre more of fruit than twin-skin plastic greenhouses.
Predominately, Flavorite grow the ‘Tradiro’ and ‘Conchita’ tomato varieties. Tradiro has been noted for its robustness and good flavour during most seasons. To ensure the best tasting varieties are available, Flavorite is continually trialling new varieties. Current experimental varieties include ‘Clarence’ and ‘Labell’ tomatoes. All these varieties are available from RijkZwaan seeds.
Seeds are started in Grodan rockwool cubes in the on-site propagating hothouse for three days at 29°C at 100% humidity until germination takes place. Once the plant develops its first set of leaves, it is placed in a larger rockwool block and grown to the first flowering stage before planting out into the 2ha glasshouse on rockwool slabs. The plant is then supplied with a dripper, which will provide water and nutrients for the rest of its life.
During their lives, plants grow to 10-12 metres in length and are wound onto string hanging from wire in the roof of the glasshouse. This allows plenty of air and sunshine, which enables Flavorite to nurture and develop premium grade tomatoes. Crop management practices include layering and interplanting techniques, made easier by the hanging gutter system that allows plenty of light and air for young plants to develop. Each plant is closely monitored to ensure its nutrient and environmental requirements are met. Computers control the environment, watering, humidity and heating, but the human ‘green finger’ touch is never far away. Plants are hand-pollinated with vibrators three times weekly (Monday, Wednesday and Friday), and tomatoes are harvested daily.
The IPM program consists of the whitefly parasitoid (Encarsia formosa), and sulphur powder sprinkled on the floor as a disease preventation measure. Reflecting current European practices, after deleafing, debris is left on the floor under the hanging gutters, out of the way, between the heating pipes. Once considered a bad management practice, in some circumstances, plant debris makes an ideal habitat for re-emerging whitefly parasitoid.
According to NSWAgriculture Senior Research Scientist, Dr Stephen Goodwin, the plant debris will dry out from the nearby heating pipes, and does not pose a serious disease risk. However, he doesn’t recommend this practice if the debris is allowed to remain moist.
Spearheading Flavorite into the future is Executive Grower Horst Sjostedt, a hydroponic grower with 35 years’ experience. Horst has extensive experience in large operations growing tomatoes in Colorado (USA), Portugal, and his home country of Sweden. As part of Grodan’s top 20 grower list, Horst recently returned from Italy, bringing back the latest information on growing varieties and marketing that will influence Flavorite’s ongoing development.
The Flavorite site at Warragul employs 150 skilled and semi-skilled full-time workers, with another 30-35 sales and marketing staff located at the Melbourne wholesale markets. Mr Millis announced work would begin on a second 2ha glasshouse in early 2005, offering more skilled job opportunities for the Gippsland region. To help meet the future skills base, Flavorite offer training programs in horticulture and packaging for its staff, affiliated growers, and students from nearby McMillan Campus.
“When we came to Warragul, unemployment was just over 20%,” said Mark Millis. “Currently, it’s just under 5% and this year Flavorite will put $4 million in wages into the local community.”
Looking to the future, Mr Millis said there are career paths in management and irrigation, and such careers are available to all Flavorite staff.
In the space of a decade, Flavorite has become Australia’s largest greenhouse tomato production, packaging and marketing business, and a significant employer of skilled and semi-skilled workers, not only in the Gippsland region, but also throughout Australia. From the beginning, the Flavorite brand has built its reputation on a juicy red, flavoursome tomato with a long shelf-life, that hasn’t been picked green and gas-ripened in cool rooms.
While the new state-of-the-art glasshouse is the largest of its kind inAustralia, it’s small by international standards, but it does represent a significant step forward for the Australian hydroponic and greenhouse industry. By comparison, the New Zealand tomato industry made the move to higher technology much earlier than Australia, with Faber Glasshouses the main structures used by large-scale operators. The largest Faber glasshouse facility in New Zealand is about 23ha, and still expanding.
With the construction of Australia’s largest automated glasshouse to grow tomatoes, Mark Millis and Warren Nichols have recognised that Australian growers need to look at tomato growing as a production line with the whole operation streamlined like a factory. This is being driven by the big food chains and other large companies that demand large quantities of high quality fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers and fish. Another important influence driving the change in the way we grow fruits and vegetables is Occupational Health & Safety (OH&S) issues, which are forcing growers to change to higher technology to become more efficient and profitable.
Flavorite is the firstAustralian business in the hydroponic and greenhouse industry to make the inevitable move to higher technology to match world production standards. To achieve its vision, the company has adopted the European way of doing business by working collaboratively with industry experts, from Australia and overseas, and with other growers to produce premium quality product. The geographical spread of Flavorite growers will allow the business to market high quality tomatoes all year round.
By 2020, the Flavorite vision tells us that over half of Australia’s tomatoes will be grown in glasshouses, generating sales of over $200 million and creating many thousands of jobs throughout Australia. Starting with this new glasshouse facility, Flavorite plans to lead the Australian industry forward in the new technological age of growing high quality hydroponic tomatoes for the growing market. The long term Flavorite vision is to build another 20ha of glasshouses next to the existing Warragul site.
As the industry continues to develop, Flavorite should not only be congratulated for creating a vibrant new industry in the Gippsland region, but also for raising the bar and setting new benchmarks for the Australian Hydroponics and Greenhouse industry.