Issue 31: From the Rainforest to the Sea

Issue 31
November/December – 1996
Story Title: From the Rainforest to the Sea
Author: Steven Carruthers

A hydroponic lettuce facility on the south coast of New South Wales fills a much needed niche in the local market.

Bateman’s Bay is a small coastal village located at the mouth of the magnificent Clyde River, where it meets the Pacific Ocean. It was here on the south coast of New South Wales that Bruno and Lucy Favetta and their four young children decided to settle in 1988. Before then, Bruno operated a successful rice, citrus, grape and vegetable operation, in conjunction with his two brothers, in the M.I.A. (Griffith, NSW); but the brothers decided to sell up and try something different.

Bateman’s Bay is the principal timber port for the vast surrounding forests, and one of the most popular holiday destinations on the Eurobodalla Coast, so named by the Aboriginal Yuin people to describe the ‘land of many waters’. Surrounded by virgin rainforests, pristine estuaries and wide, golden beaches, the district attracts holiday-makers year round. And like most holiday destinations, fresh produce is always in demand, especially during the peak summer months.

Before settling in Bateman’s Bay, Bruno and Lucy had already started looking into soilless culture techniques, attended a seminar conducted by Accent Hydroponics, and visited several hydroponic farms on the north coast in preparation for starting their own venture.

“We started slow. We didn’t go into it quickly,” said Bruno.

After moving to Bateman’s Bay, Bruno and Lucy acquired a small parcel of land, between the rainforest and the sea, and only a few minutes drive from the town centre. During the day Bruno worked as a carpenter in the local building trade, and built his home, shed and NFT growing system during his spare time, while Lucy and the kids worked their modest operation and made the deliveries.

Today, the Favetta operation consists of two independent NFT growing systems, with a total production capacity of 22,000 lettuce, which is now worked by Bruno fulltime and employs two part-timers. In all, there are 31 tables, 18 metres in length. One system (7 tables) is dedicated to Icebergs and Cos lettuce; the other is for fancy lettuce, herbs and edible flowers.

For many small growers, the cost of automation is cost- prohibitive. The Favetta operation is no exception. Fortunately, Bruno prefers to monitor his growing systems manually, because he believes he has more control over the quality of his produce.

The solution strength of both systems is measured in the early evening, when the conductivity of the ‘head’ lettuce system is set at 1.6mS/cm. By the following evening, the conductivity is between 0.9 to 1 mS/cm, at which time it is adjusted upwards again. The fancy lettuce system is run at a conductivity of 1.2mS/cm, and is also re-adjusted in the early evening.

Both systems use 3000 litre tanks filled to about 1800 litres, set well below the height of the growing tables, thus allowing gravity to return the nutrient solution to the holding tank. During periods of heavy rain, the pumps are stopped, and both 100 mm return lines isolated to prevent tank overflow and nutrient dilution.

As with many small growers, improvising becomes a way of life. The Favetta filtering system is one such improvisation, where the return lines are filtered by a stretched stocking across the sump.

In the early days, Bruno used a general purpose nutrient formula to grow his lettuce, but he experienced yellowing around the edges of the leaves during winter. With the help of Dick Finlayson from the University of New South Wales, Bruno and Lucy now formulate their own nutrients to suit their particular micro-climate. During rapid summer growth, analysis shows low potassium levels, which are adjusted upwards as required.

The Favetta family grow their own seedlings. Seeds are started in seedling trays using a mixture of perlite and peat moss. From seed to transplant into the main growing system is about 4 to 5 weeks in summer, and 8-10 weeks during the cooler winter months.

The Favetta operation embodies all the popular head and fancy lettuce varieties. According to Bruno, there’s been a shift away from butters and mignonettes to oak leaf varieties. Bruno has also found a niche market for his radicchio, mizuna and mibuna, which have proved popular among the trendy restaurants.

Additionally, Bruno has developed a niche market for fresh herbs, including parsley, chives, coriander, dill, rocket, watercress, chervil, basil and sage. These herbs are grown in the same system as the fancy lettuce, along with edible nasturtiums.

The Favetta operation supplies most of the lettuce and herbs to restaurants, small goods stores and supermarkets from Ulladulla to Narooma, a distance of 150 kilometres from north to south.

Lucy also makes homemade herb vinegars which can be found at local fetes. The ingredients of each batch depend upon what is in season at the time, but usually they contain oregano, peppers and thyme.

In late 1995, Bruno erected a hail net over his 2500 square metre growing area. While the area is not prone to violent hail storms, it would spell disaster for their small, growing business in the event of freak weather patterns.

Disaster nearly did strike with the horrific January 1994 bushfires, which saw most of the state ablaze. With fire all around them, Lucy and the children were ordered to evacuate the homestead, while Bruno fought alongside the volunteer Bush Brigade to successfully stay the flames.

“The fires were coming so fast we only had half an hour to get out, so I left with the kids and animals,” said Lucy.

“Now, you wouldn’t think there was a fire through here. The bush has come back so well.”