Issue 13: Pacific Hydroponics

Issue 13
Nov/Dec – 1993
Story Title: Pacific Hydroponics
Author: Roger Fox

Garry Cahill had a baptism of fire when he entered the world of commercial hydroponics. His operation was besieged by problems and came close to failing altogether. But with sound advice and some marketing know-how, he has managed to surwwe, turning adversity into advantage and loss into profit.

Every day of the year, lettuces from Pacific Hydroponics fly all over the world, not as packaged exports, but dished up as salads and garnishes in thousands of airline meals. As supplier to Qantas and Ansett airlines, Pacific Hydroponics has carved out a secure, but highly particular, market niche which demands year round supply and an assurance of top quality.

Looking at the streamlined growing operation at Pacific Hydroponics today, it’s hard to imagine the problems which plagued its creation. But in reality, a period of “no crops and no income” was a part of the difficult birth of today’s prosperous enterprise. For owner Garry Cahill, unraveling the mystery, and sometimes secrecy, surrounding commercial hydroponics has been one of the biggest challenges to turning the operation around. Fortunately, persistence has paid off.

Like many of today’s hydroponic operators, Garry came into the industry looking for a new business venture.

In 1989 he bought 25 acres of land at Lake Munmorah on the Central Coast of NSW, did a TAFE course in hydroponics, and engaged a company in Melbourne to install a hydroponic lettuce growing operation for him. The company offered a complete package which included the installation of a reliable growing system and an established marketing arrangement with a large supermarket chain. It sounded ideal, but unfortunately the many promises proved hollow.

Having paid for the system, Garry then found that the manufacturers were unable to get it going. At the same time, the so called ‘established market” failed to materialise. There followed a year with nothing growing in the system and a high interest debt to service.

“In other words,” Garry says, “we couldn’t get the thing going and we had no market.”

Leaving his wife and four children in Sydney, Garry moved up to the farm and spent two difficult years turning the system around and finding a market for his product. His task was assisted by the support of farm manager, Phil Ritchie, as well as significant contributions from Geoff Creswell of the NSW Department of Agriculture, among others. Between them, they were able to overcome the inherent problems in the system and start producing good lettuce crops. Simultaneously, Garry tackled the question of marketing, convinced of the need for a planned approach.

“I knew we had to get out and market it professionally,” he says.

And market it professionally he did, establishing not only an airline market (Qantas also supply meals to all the other airlines), but also a local run to quality restaurants on the central coast.

Today, Pacific Hydroponics harvest lettuce every day of the year, deliver ing them direct to the airlines in Sydney each morning. The farm’s distance from Sydney (about 110km) makes this system practical, but Garry comments that he would not go any further away from a capital city market. The farm also benefits from a benign coastal climate, where frosts are rare, and an immediate environment which is conducive to good production. There is good natural windbreak protection, to the west, north and east, and during summer the prevailing north easterly winds pass over the large water area of near by Lake Munmorah, creating a cooling effect. Garry is convinced that a farm’s surrounding environment can play a significant role.

“We didn’t know that when we built it,” he says, “it’s a bonus. But now I realise how important environment is to the operation.”

At any one time, upwards of 90,000 lettuces are growing in the system at Pacific Hydroponics. Varieties include mignonette, butter, red and green coral, red and green oak, mini cos, green cos and radicchio. Plants are harvested every morning, between 6 and 9am, and around 1000 boxes a week are sold fresh. “Boxes’ is actually a misnomer, since Garry has managed to avoid the expense of buying and printing cardboard boxes for packing and transport. Instead, lettuce are packed in red plastic crates which are subsequently returned to him by Qantas for re-use.

Despite the problems Garry experienced in getting to production stage, the system as it stands now is impres sive in its efficiency and ease of operation. It is based on a highly interesting concept, using plastic covered, 14 metre long tables. Seedlings are planted through slits in the plastic cover, which also supports them, and fed by the Nutrient Film Technique (M).

The plastic is reflective white on the outside and black underneath, to create a darkened chamber which is favourable to the roots, but not to the growth of algae. There are 410 lettuces in each table, and harvesting involves simply pulling out the plants, roots and all. Hosing down the tops of the tables after harvest is the simple clean up procedure.

The tables are arranged in six sheds’, roofiess structures with sides Of mesh fabric that can be rolled up or down as required. Each table, however, has its own plastic cover which can be rolled over to create a mini green house, or to provide hail protection. The sheds measure 110m by 17m and each contains 40 tables. The tables themselves are custom made from fibreglass with slight corrugations, creating small channels down which the nutrient solution flows. The plant roots are free to wander into the nearest channel, and there is no ponding effect. The nutrient is recirculated and the tables have a slope of 300mm over their 14 metre length which, Garry comments, is higher than the norm.

“It’s far greater than farms I’ve seen, ” he says, ” but I’ve found out that the quicker you turn the water around the better.”

Indeed speed is one of the keys to the way Garry runs his operation.

“We’re in the game of fast growing produce – that’s what it is,” Garry explains. “The faster you grow it, the more money you make because the more crops you get per year. So it s all speed and in fact they’re easier to manage the faster they’re grown.”

The farm uses town water, which is stored in two 45,000 litre (10,000 gal Ion) tanks. It requires pH stabilization before using, since according to Garry, the pH can vary widely – anywhere from pH 5 to 9. The nutrient solution is mixed in smaller 8000 litre (1758 gallons) tanks, which can be heated if -necessary, and a standard lettuce mix nutrient is used, manufactured by Sydney company Simple Grow. Brian Heame, Simple Grow’s owner and manager, has been involved with the operation from the start, helping Garry to get his nutrient formulation right.

The growing system is a re-circulating one with a flow rate of 1.25 litres per minute and the nutrient solution is topped up when necessary, notably after periods of rain. Each of the six sheds operates quite independently of the others, to minimize production loss should a problem arise. During summer, the solution is dumped about every two months, but dumping is rarely found to be necessary in winter. Interestingly, all monitoring of EC and pH is done manually, using standard meters, and automation is kept to a minimum. This, Garry believes, ensures a more hands-on approach to the operation.

“I really don’t think you can fully automate a commerdal set-up. Once you do that, you don’t have people here and if you don’t have people here, you’ll never find out if some thing’s wrong. It can’t be a 9 to 5 thing,” he says.

With select clients such as airline companies, high priority has to be given to producing crops that are dean and free from insects. Pests and diseases are minimised by keeping the area around the farm clean, and apart from an attack of Rutherglen Bug two years ago, there have been few problems. Garry subscribes to a preventative approach to such problems.

“We know now, during certain times of the year, you’ve got to watch out for certain things,” he says. “So before it happens we take precautions”

A precautionary approach also extends to the prevention of pythium, which, during the last summer season, didn’t manifest itself. Farm manager Phil Ritchie believes management practices have an important influence on pythium prevention and that by not stressing the plants, you can avoid the problem appearing. To this end, he shaded the plants lightly last summer, by letting the plastic covers hang down a little over the tables and believes this had a positive effect. As a result, he is now considering trialing shadecloth as a roof over some of the sheds.

Another pythium preventative measure at Pacific Hydroponics is the addition of Agral, a non-ionic wetting agent, to the nutrient tank. Agral was originally developed in the UK to con trol Big Vein virus in lettuce and has a special registration for use in hydroponic nutrient solutions. It works by dissolving away the tail of the pythium spores, where the virus is alive, and also dissolving the vessicle from which the pythium spores are released. Agral was recommended to Phil by the NSW Department of Agriculture and is now run in the nutrient all summer.

No seedling propagation is done on the farm. All the lettuce seedlings come from Leppington Seedlings, professional growers south west of Sydney, as part of a standard weekly order. According to farm manager Phil Ritchie, the relationship with a seedling grower is an important one.

“I’ve explained to him what we’ve been after in a crop,” Phil says. “I can say to him that this type of lettuce is having certain difficulties and then we get a replacement. And he has been able to supply us with lettuces that suit this district.”

When Garry Cahill bought the farm, it was being used as a small flower growing enterprise and with it came plantings of Kangaroo Paw (Anigozanthos sp.) and Proteas. These he has maintained as a sideline enterprise, selling the cut flowers on the export market. While Garry admits that he would not have chosen to plant them, he believes in taking advantage of all possible sources of income, particularly since he has a permanent labour force of six people. The flowers are drip irrigated, and the spent nutrient from the lettuce system is also run onto them, rather than dumping it into a paddock.

“If we were going to build another of these, we’d make some changes and do it a lot cheaper…”

While Garry would consider diversifying into other crops, he maintains that it would have to be under certain terms.

“We’d want a market first and we’d say to the client, OK we’ll grow that crop for you and this is how we can grow.”

The best market, he adds, is a reliable year-round one, rather than one I that fluctuates seasonally.

With the benefit of hindsight, Garry can also see ways of improving on his current growing system.

“If we were going to build another of these, we’d make some changes and we’d do it a lot cheaper,” he says. “So consequently, we’d get it running as well as this is running, but the cap ital cost would be lower, so we’d be more profitable.”

Location is something Garry would not change significantly. He believes there are advantages in being close to the coast, because of the mild climatic influences and consequently would not consider going any further inland, where the frost belt begins.

Out of his adversity, Garry has managed not only to survive, but to turn the enterprise around to profit. His problems, which started with an inept company who were unable to get their own system design up and running, were not alleviated by what he felt at the time was a degree of secrecy within the industry. While things are improving now, Garry feels that a more professional attitude to hydroponic farming operations needs to be adopted, whereby they are run along strict business guidelines.

“If we’re going to make a go of hydroponics, commercial hydroponics have got to stand up on their own as businesses, without the family involvement,” he says.