Issue 08: Flowerponics

Issue 08
January/February – 1993
Story Title: Flowerponics
Author: Roger Fox

Going commercial, as hydroponic consultants so often stress, is no easy road to a fortune. The seeming ease of hydroponic growing, when compared with soil, has deceived many a beginner into thinking that once they can get a system up and running, their living is made. But amongst the considerations which this view ignores is a remarkably basic one – the market. If you cant sell the crop you’re producing, then even the most well designed hydroponic system in the world, will not return a profit.

When Bill Amy considered starting a hydroponic flower farm in the Port Macquarie district of NSW, a local market for cur flowers was the first thing he went looking for. The fact that a good market existed, and was not being properly serviced at a local level, has really been the key to the farms establishment and success. Bill Amy is typical of the new breed of hydroponic producer who have approached their business in the right order and is now reaping the rewards.

A former project manager with a Sydney construction company, Bill migrated north 6 years ago with his wife and young family for a change of lifestyle and environment. While he knew a little of hydroponics and had seen a large scale lettuce farm in operation, he was , by his own admission, green. Initially considering lettuce as a crop, Bill became interested in flowers and decided to research what market existed for them locally. A survey of the florists in Port Maquarie revealed that all of them were getting their flowers from Sydney, 400kms to the south, and Bill realised that he could successfully fill this obvious gap by growing locally. The lettuce idea was dropped, a consultant hired, and the flower farm began.

The land the Amys purchased included a pottery business, which had been operating under the Thrumster name for a number of years. While they didn’t particularly want to continue the business, it became a useful sideline income while they were getting the hydroponic enterprise up and running and has now been leased outhe right order and are rather Thrumster as a tourist concern, selling pottery and serving teas.

However, for Bill the main attraction was the land itself, only a few kilometres from the town of Port Macquarie and with an excellent supply of good quality town water.

“The water in this area is particularly good, it really lends itself to hydroponics and that is the key to it. There are people around here using bore water and dam water and having continual problems. They’re spending a fortune just trying to make their water right, ” Bill says.

Today, the farm consists of 13 igloo greenhouses (21m x 6m) and, as of last year, a large new “Air Grow” shed (54m x 40m) which has more than doubled the flower production – it houses 33,000 plants. All the flowers are grown in rockwool batts which sit on slabs of foam and the nutrient drains via a 200mm slope from the front to the rear of the sheds. One nutrient formula is used for all plants, which further adds to the uniformity of the system and streamlines the day to day activities, something Bill believes is most important. The whole system was set up with the help of a consultant, “vital for anyone without growing experience”, and the basis of the nutrient formula came from another hydroponic flower grower in northern NSW. This was refined with the help of Bill’s rockwool supplier, Growool Services, and the spent nutrient was analysed to identify any problems. Having arrived at a good nutrient balance for his plants, however, Bill doesn’t believe in tinkering with it. “There’s not much point in playing around with something that you’re happy with that’s working well for you, just for the sake of it,” Bill says.

The range of flowers produced at Thrumster Farm includes Carnations, Gerberas, Gypsophila, Limonium “Misty Blue”, as well as some Chrysanthemums for Mother’s Day. Carnations, though, are the major line and 40,000 of them are grown, including standard and spray varieties. Carnation cuttings are bought from suppliers in Melbourne who are on the Victorian “Clean Scheme”, ensuring stock which is free from fusarium problems.

“The main problem you have with growing carnations is fusarium,” according to Bill. “You’ll always have some of it, but if you can get the majority of it out of your crop, and that comes from your cuttings, you’ve kicked a goal straight away.”

Good stock, combined with careful management practices have meant that fusarium is hardly seen at Thrumster Farm. Another important defence against the problem is not re-using the rockwool batts for growing carnations, though they can be re-used for growing the other flower crops. The batts are dried out by turning off the water to the plants at the end of the season, and leaving them to draw out the remaining moisture over a few weeks. The plants are then pulled out and the rockwool re-bagged and used to grow Limonium, Statice and Chrysanthemums.

Carnation plants are only kept for a year, occasionally 18 months, and then replaced with new stock. Despite the fact that they can be cropped for longer than that, Bill believes that it’s best to turn them over regularly, mainly from a quality perspective.

“The whole basis of our business here is quality. People say you can happily grow carnations for a couple of years, but I have my doubts as to whether you can do it properly commercially.”

Quality has certainly paid off for Bill Amy. He has based his business on being able to supply a superior product to florists in the northern region and his customers cover an area stretching from Newcastle to Grafton and out as far as Tamworth and Moree. Once again, marketing has been important, and Bill’s preferred strategy has been to approach only one or two florists in a town as clients.

“Once we’re into one town, we go to somewhere new, and that gives that florist a bit more individuality in that town, which gives them an edge,” Bill says. The fact that the flowers are hydroponically grown is a big advantage these days, Bill feels, though it was not always so in the past.

“I strongly advertise the fact that the flowers are hydroponic,” he says. “I think hydroponics and growing under cover have gone hand in hand and therefore if you mention that you’re a greenhouse grower, growing in hydroponics nowadays, it tends to carry some weight.”

“You’ll find, especially in carnations, every major carnation grower worth his salt is growing hydroponically nowadays, because of fusarium problems. something worth promoting’s because of fusarium problems.”

Thrumster Farm carnations are sold to the florists for a set price year round. This, according to Bill, makes them fairly cheap in the winter, but it is a good price for summer and gives some stability to his returns. He is critical, however, of the way superior quality fails to get recognized in the marketing of fruit and vegetable produce in Australia. He points to Holland where A1 quality flowers are recognized as such and attract a top price, while in Australia, where no such quality control exists, high standard blooms may only get the same price as “rubbish”.

One development which has made a difference to flower growing in this country according to Bill , is the introduction of Plant Variety Rights (PVR). PVR has meant a better selection of flower varieties is available in Australia, and while we now pay royalties on new varieties, they are getting released here earlier and thereby improving the quality and selection available on the market. Previously, Bill feels, we were behind the times with flower varieties in Australia, since the lack of a PVR system meant that the Dutch growers would not release their new types here.

In terms of efficiency, Thrumster Farm is an impressive operation. The system has been designed to be run smoothly by Bill himself , who is a great believer in labour saving devices and good set-ups.

“You’ve got to have it neat, you can’t work otherwise,” he explains. “Everything we’ve done here, we’ve tried to do it properly the first time round.”

Doing it properly has included installing concrete floors in all the greenhouses. These provide a clean environment, better working conditions for the flower pickers and a quick turn around of crops. When a crop of flowers is finished, the sheds can simply be hosed out and are ready for the next planting. While concrete floors are a significant expense initially, Bill believes he will get his money back in 7-8 years from the associated savings. Economies of time are important also and for this reason, plant cuttings are established first in rockwool cubes, and spend a month in a propagation shed before being transplanted, cube and all, into the larger batts. This of course means that the flower sheds are not tied up with immature, non-flowering stock for any longer than they need to be.

The planting schedule is organized so that everything in the greenhouse is flowering during winter and about two thirds over the summer, when replanting is carried out. Plants are watered for two hour periods once a day in winter(at EC 2) and 2-3 times a day in summer (at EC 1.6) . Bill regularly samples the nutrient in the rockwool batts to measure the pH and EC, but does not find it necessary to flush them with fresh water. Once every 6 weeks, however, he may run the system at a reduced EC of around 1sqm, to provide a flushing effect. Gerberas, Bill finds, are a good barometer of how things are going, being very sensitive to nutrient problems and rising salt levels in the rockwool particularly .

“If everything’s going well with your Gerberas, you can be fairly happy that everything else is okay.”

Some of the smaller sheds are heated during the winter, via hot water tubes which run beneath the rockwool. This maintains a temperature of around 15-16°C overnight – outside temperatures can drop to 1-2°C in winter.

The large Airgrow shed has not had heating installed because Bill believes that while it would bring forward the flowering of the carnations, it wouldn’t actually result in any more flowers and therefore would not be worth the expense. For growing the Gypsophila, lighting is used to extend the day until around 11pm and the plants are also sprayed with growth hormones once a week for 4-5 weeks. The hormones give the plants an initial growth boost and then the extra light continues the high production rate.

Consistent with his idea of streamlined automation of the system, Bill has recently refined the nutrient dosing and feeding set-up so that it is largely self regulating. A year ago he purchased a dosing plant which he describes as a “godsend”, saving a huge amount of time and leaving his weekends relatively trouble free. The dosing plant works in tandem with a water controller which is time based and can be adjusted if sudden changes in the weather make it necessary. The system also offers the necessary versatility for growing several different flower crops. For example, the Gerberas are on a separate watering program to the carnations, because of research suggesting that increased yields can be obtained by watering Gerberas just on dark.

The nutrient concentrate, which is in two parts, is contained in two 1000 litre tanks, giving 3-4 weeks supply. These feed into larger holding tanks from which the water controller dispenses the solution to the plants – the system is a run to waste type. When the water controller turns the pump off at the end of each watering cycle, it notifies the dosing plant to cut in. The tank then fills with water, the circulation pump starts, and the nutrient dosing and acid dosing pumps cut in, switching off when pre-set parameters have been reached.once a day in winter their et parameters have been reached. Bill makes up his own nutrient concentrates from locally bought ingredients, and maintains his solution at an EC of 2 mS in winter and 1.6sqm in summer. The dosing plant provides a constant reading of cF and pH, which can be checked regularly. In terms of further innovations, Bill believes a “needs-based” rather than a time-based watering controller would be an excellent aid, but at present the expense makes it prohibitive.

The flowers at Thrumster Farm are packed and graded on site for despatch to their various destinations. After cutting, the flowers receive a post harvest treatment in Chrysal AVB, a Dutch product, which prolongs their life and therefore enhances the all important quality aspect of the flowers. All the flowers are strictly graded and are stored in a high humidity cool room, which is maintained at a temperature of 1°C and 100% humidity.

A tour of the packing shed reveals further time saving mechanization. There is a machine to strip the lower leaves off the flowers and a binding machine which ties each bunch and has proved so time efficient that Bill believes it will pay for itself in the first year. Both machines are from Holland, a country which offers excellent technology for the flower grower.

Bill keeps an open mind to developments in the greenhouse industry generally and is aware of the need to trial new products.

“The trick to anything, new flowers, new shed covers, new anything, is to get a little and give it a go and see how it works for you, because what works for me here can be completely different for someone in Brisbane or Melbourne. We find that with the varieties of carnations.”

If there is a message to be gained from the operation at Thrumster Flower Farm, it is to “do it right” the first time and thereby save much time and money in the long run. Everything from the market to the nutrient has to be planned before a farm is started, preferably with lots of help from consultants and advice from other hydroponic farmers.

Adequate capital is of course essential and it can be a few years before healthy profits begin to appear – Bill Amy points out that it has taken them 6 years to really “make a go of it”. To start out undercapitalised is, he says, “disastrous”. At the same time though, it’s possible to slowly expand your operation over time, provided that you haven’t given yourself an impossible debt to service.

You can never stop learning. Bill Amy travels to hydroponic conferences and flower industry gatherings within Australia because of the need to always keep ahead of developments in a constantly changing industry.

His approach to his business has proved the value of excellent preparation and an ongoing information flow. They say that farming science has a “half life” of three years – in an ever changing field like hydroponics, this could be even briefer.