Issue 47: Masters of Mesclun

Issue 47
July/August – 1999
Story Title: Masters of Mesclun
Author: Roger Fox

The evolution of a hydroponic lettuce farm, into a top quality fresh-cut salad processor.

Converting from a lettuce farm to a ‘salad farm’ is a major operational leap – as Garry Cahill, owner of Pacific Hydroponics in NSW, can attest. His enterprise has recently completed a 2-year conversion from whole lettuce production to processed fresh-cuts, and has in the process restructured every element of its operation. With the conversion now complete, Pacific Hydroponics has emerged as a thoroughly transformed enterprise.

Perhaps the most basic change at Pacific Hydroponics has been the growing philosophy. For the producer of whole lettuce, the focus is on turning out a perfectly grown, well sized lettuce, which will look attractive in the marketplace. But for the salad grower, it’s the individual leaves that matter – not the whole plant – and sometimes smaller leaves are the most desirable.

Accordingly, at Pacific Hydroponics, lettuce are no longer harvested as whole plants. Instead, they are ‘picked’ – sliced off at the crown and dropped into a collection bin, where the leaves naturally separate. The remaining lettuce plants, still in the hydroponic tables, then regrow from the base, to be picked again in a few weeks. The lettuce have changed, in effect, from being a one-harvest commodity, to being a multi-picked leaf vegetable.

Making Mesclun
The transformation of Pacific Hydroponics into a producer of fresh-cut salads has not, of course, been achieved overnight. Nor has it happened without considerable expense, requiring major investment in equipment and infrastructure. And, critically, growing management has had to change.

“In converting a lettuce farm to a salad farm, it’s not a question of just putting in a processing plant,” Garry explains. “In salad mixes, all the leaves are small, so the majority of the lettuce we grow now is non-retail. We grow it specifically to cut it for a salad mix.”

Garry based his harvesting method on what he had seen on field lettuce farms in California’s Selinas Valley. There, growers pick lettuces for salad-mix by slicing them off at the crown, and dropping the loose leaves into a harvesting bin. The great advantage of the technique is that the leaves fall apart naturally – there is no need to break them up, so handling is minimised. The bins full of freshly harvested loose leaves, then go straight up to the processing area.

And that process has lead to the other big change in procedure, whereby the lettuce plants are left in the channels to regrow, something which they do with remarkable speed in the warmer months. The result is several harvests from each lettuce plant.

The processing of fresh-cut salads is all about speed, hygiene and the best equipment. Once the lettuce come up from the farm, they enter a cold chain which is scrupulously maintained all the way through to the consumer. The processing room is maintained at 5°C, likewise the cool room for storage and the refrigerated delivery truck.

“The leaves for the mesclun mix come up to the packing room in a red crate, before 7 o’clock in the morning, and from there they get chilled, and then subsequently processed,” Garry explains. “We can’t hold any of it overnight, so everything that is cut is processed the same day.”

Processing and packaging is a multi-stage procedure. The salad leaves are first placed into large baskets and triple-washed in water, containing a recommended additive.

From here, they move through an automated Flume containing pure chilled water (at 1 – 2°C), where they are washed again and delivered onto a draining rack. From here they are placed in a centrifuge spinner, which spins the water out of the leaves, before being transferred to the packaging table.

The salads are bagged in modified atmosphere packaging (MAP), and then sealed by a machine which draws a vacuum to remove most of the air, and replaces it with food-grade nitrogen.

“The environment when you seal the bag is 95% Nitrogen and 5% Oxygen,” Garry explains, “and the bags are permeable for gas exchange, to create the environment that’s optimum for shelf life.”

Not surprisingly, the fresh-cut processing infrastructure at Pacific Hydroponics has not come cheaply. By the time the salads have been packaged and loaded into the truck, they have moved through many thousands of dollars worth of high-tech equipment.

And the set-up has taken Garry around 2 years to bring to fruition. But as a principal salad supplier to clients such as Qantas and Ansett Airlines, where quality standards are critical, Garry believes it has been an essential progression for his business, driven by client expectations.

He summarises his evolution thus:
“Ten years ago, I started supplying Qantas with hydroponic lettuce, with the roots on, in a red crate. But because of technological changes, in order to hold the Qantas account, I now supply them with hydroponic lettuce leaves, triple-washed, in a modified atmosphere packaging – in a red crate.

“And I’ve made all of those evolutionary changes in order to keep up with my market demand.”

Taking a long term view of the industry, Garry believes that value adding, through processing, may become the norm among salad growers, and centralised processing plants will eventually evolve.

“What I’m hoping is that one day you’ll have clusters of farms around a processing plant – perhaps run as a co-operative – and just as you package milk through United Dairies, you’ll do the same with lettuce. “For example, you might have a Central Coast facility, a Western Sydney one, and so on.”

Servicing a Quality Market
So complete has the conversion to Fresh-cut production been at Pacific Hydroponics, that today less than 10% of the production consists of whole head lettuce. Clients for the salad mixes include Qantas and Ansett airlines, Woolworths and Davids supermarkets, fine-food providors (servicing Sydney restaurants and hotels), and even interstate providors. Everything is pre-priced and pre-ordered, and deliveries are made 6 days a week by refrigerated truck. Geographically, the farm is ideally located, with Sydney only about an hour’s drive south by freeway.

Turning out a high quality mesclun salad means growing a wide range of lettuce and herb varieties, to provide the mix of colours, leaf shapes, flavours and textures. Accordingly, Pacific Hydroponics currently grows butter lettuce, mignonette, red and green coral, red and green oak, cos, Monet, Ronet, Frillice, Red Velvet and Frisbee, in addition to endives and a wide selection of herbs.

The enterprise supplies three main sizes of packaged product: 3kg boxes for sale through the supermarkets; 0.5kg bags for the airline clients; and 150g retail bags. Inevitably, client requirements vary and so the production system has to accommodate requests for special mixes. One client, for example, likes more herbs in their mesclun mix, while several clients require bags of just one lettuce variety – for example, all Cos leaves for Caesar salads. The production system, therefore, has to be flexible enough to service these specific customer needs, as Garry explains.

“The crates are stacked in the combination you want to put into your salad mix. So you might have two crates of Frisbee, one of Frillice and so on, and then you’ll have a crate full of herbs, and the combination of all these might make you 20kgs of mesclun mix.

“And that is how, in producing 200 boxes, we are able to produce 15 boxes that a particular client wants done differently. One of the main distinctions in orders, for example, is very small leaves as opposed to medium leaves.”

And keeping abreast of new lettuce and herb varieties is important too, so that the product range is kept fresh and interesting. By raising all their own seedlings, Pacific Hydroponics have the flexibility to change the plant varieties in their mix at any time.

The Growing Division
All the ingredients of the salad mixes are grown on site and all in hydroponic systems. The farm is essentially divided into two – the original set-up, which consists of large film-covered tables; and a later expansion which comprises 120 conventional NFT tables under hail net, growing 100,000 lettuce. This natural division in the operation has proved useful, with the older farm used for growing the herbs and small-leaf lettuce, and the NFT tables raising all the other lettuce varieties.

Located between the two production areas is the seedling house, where lettuce seedlings are raised in trays on large trolleys, for wheeling direct to their planting site. However, the herbs are propagated differently. These are seeded directly into a small punnet, containing vermiculite and peat, and after an initial overhead watering, are placed straight into the tables to germinate (the panda film is simply cut to accommodate the shape of the punnet). The technique works well – the herbs flourish – and like the lettuce, they regrow vigorously after each harvest.

The herbs have presented Garry with other marketing opportunities. Some of his restaurant clients are now ordering the herbs still in their punnets, so that they’re still growing when they get to the kitchen.

“Restaurants like the idea of 16 different types of these herbs in a box, ” Garry says. “They can’t get any fresher herb than that.”

Importantly from a Quality Control point of view, everything that goes into Pacific Hydroponics’ products is grown on site and under strict control.

“We start from a seed and go right through to a bag of packaged lettuce – all the way through,” Garry says.

Health and Safety
For fresh-cut producers, whatever their size, hygiene and food safety are critical issues. With the help of business consultant David Nebauer, Garry has introduced an HACCP system to his enterprise, an acronym for “Hazard Analysis at Critical Control Points”. This, in simple terms, means identifying all the ‘critical control points’ in the system, where something could go wrong. Appropriate mechansims are then established to prevent these problems from arising. It’s essentially a way of pre-empting problems and is especially critical in food production businesses.

Some clients, such as Woolworths supermarkets and the airlines, have requirements of their own, so Garry felt it was important to go beyond these standards.

“For example, Woolworths’ Quality Vendor Management System is based on HACCP, but the system we’ve introduced is above these standards,” he explains. “So really there won’t be anyone who would demand anything higher. We’ll comply with everything.”

The relevant standards apply to everything, from procedures to the equipment itself, which is one of the reasons for the significant expense involved.

“All the equipment must be stainless steel – everything has to comply with certain standards.

“Currently its very labour intensive – it takes us 1 hour to start everything up, before you even see a piece of lettuce go through. And it takes double that to wash everything down and clean up at the end of the day.”

Today, around 100 tonnes of processed lettuce are produced each year by Pacific Hydroponics. Over the last 2 years, the enterprise has undergone a complete transformation, entering a new phase in its business development. While the financial and managerial commitment has been significant, Garry believes firmly that it has been the right move for him.

“I think you’ve got to move ahead,” he says. “If you’re not prepared to do things differently, nothing’s going to change.”

Meeting his customers’ needs has always been a central part of Garry’s business philosophy. Ultimately, it has seen Pacific Hydroponics completely ‘reinvented’.

Building in Quality – QA & HACCP
DAVID NEBAUER managed the implementation of quality and safety systems at Pacific Hydroponics. Here, he summarises the quality mechanisms which are of most importance to a food producer.

A Quality Assurance (QA) system is a set of formal “on-farm” procedures and practices, designed to reduce quality and safety problems with produce delivered to customers. Quality Assurance need not be a complicated, expensive process, but does require the commitment of the grower to incorporate quality programs into every part of the business.

There are 3 distinct levels of QA system used in horticulture. The level of QA system required will be determined by the level of risk associated with the produce. Most fresh produce is considered to be of low risk to the consumer. However, those producers who process, value add, package or transform their produce on farm, will be considered to have a higher level of risk.

The three levels of QA system are:
Level 1. An Approved Supplier Program – which is the simplest form of QA system. Developed by individual retail supermarket chains and some major agents, Approved Supplier Programs specify the minimum controls a grower must have over the purchasing, production, storage, packaging and handling processes on the farm.

Each of the major retailers have their own program, which growers must set up on farm if they are to continue to supply produce to them. The Woolworths Vendor Quality Management Standard (WVQMS) is an example of this type of QA system. For most growers, an approved supplier program will be sufficient to satisfy their customer’s requirements.

Level 2. A HACCP Plan – (which stands for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points), is a more comprehensive QA system than the Approved Supplier Programs. A HACCP plan involves analysing each step of the production process, from planting of seed through to delivery of the final product, and identifying the steps in the process where there are potential problems which may affect the quality or safety of the finished product. Once identified, these potential problem areas become the Critical Control Points, and formal procedures are set up to ensure that the problems do not arise.

HACCP plans must comply with internationally accepted standards, and are suitable for food producers who process, package or value add on farm. You can have your HACCP plan audited to verify that it complies with the international standard.

Level 3. A Quality Management System – is the highest level of QA, and involves incorporating a comprehensive focus on quality and safety practices into all aspects of the business. QA systems focus not only on the product, but on all aspects of the business’s operation. A QA System can assist to improve the efficiency, effectiveness and profitability of the business.

QA Systems are formally audited and certified by the organisation who has developed the standard, and once the audit has been passed, the grower receives official certification of compliance.

Some QA Systems are based on the HACCP process and some are not. For food production businesses, it is advisable to use a HACCP-based system. Examples of common QA Systems are SQF2000 (HACCP-based) and ISO9002 (not HACCP-based).

Pacific Hydroponics, being a processor and packager, is developing a HACCP-based Quality Management System. The system identifies areas in the process where there are potential risks and problems, and specifies systems designed to remove these risks.

In going through the process of developing the system, Pacific Hydroponics has identified a number of existing systems which were inadequate, and has modified on-farm practices, improving the quality of the finished product and saving time and money for the business.