Issue 49: The Australian Hydroponic Conference 1999

Issue 49
November/December – 1999
Story Title: The Australian Hydroponic Conference 1999
Author: Steven Carruthers

This, the fifth Australian Hydroponic Conference, showcased an industry which has flourished in only the last ten years. It was as recently as 1990 that the first conference on hydroponics was held in this country, so Adelaide’s confident and ambitious event was an encouraging prelude to the next Millennium.

The multiple layers of the hydroponics industry – the retail, manufacturing, commercial grower and hobby gardening sectors – were all represented in Adelaide. And many features of the event – such as its official opening by a Government Minister, the flow of public visitors to the trade exhibition area, and interest from local TV crews -suggest an industry which is ‘mainstreaming’, to some extent, in the public consciousness. It’s a long way for the Australian industry to have travelled in only five conferences.

Dorothy Kotz, Minister for the Environment, officially launched the 1999 Hydroponic Conference.

(L to R) Gordon Feeney from Ablite in Sydney, with Joy Geddes and Damien Freeth from Azrom Greenhouses in the Riverina.

(L to R) David Bromilow and Carl Barry from Growth Technology in WA, with Tom Duncan from Rambridge Structure & Design in Alberta Canada.

(L to R) Grant Creevey and Glenn Don from Accent Hydroponics Australia, with Apithep Tantisavee from Accent Hydroponics Thailand.

(L to R) Mick Lanyon, Vic Lipinski and Peter Doyle from Hi-Tech Hydroponics in Victoria. (Seated) – Clive Ducker from Growing Solutions.

(L to R) Garry Cahill from Pacific Hydroponics in NSW, Baldur Zehler from Salad Greens & Herbs in the Adelaide Hills, and John Neuman from Adelaide.

Mick Lanyon, from Hi-Tech Hydroponics, with Dan Brentlinger from CropKing, Ohio, USA.

Gloria Samperio Ruiz, a visiting grower from Mexico, who organised the first Mexican Hydroponic Conference held in May 1999.

(L to R) Chairman of the Conference Committee Robin Moseby (Soladome), Debbie Cooper from ABC Aquaculture in NSW, and Grahame Plumber from Greenlite Hydroponics in Melbourne.

Robbie Fayle from Calclear in NSW, with AHA Administrator Saskia Blanch.

(L to R) Peter March and Duane Burke from Novartis Seeds, with Laurence Thomason from Sogeri Primary Produce in New Guinea.

The 1999 Conference was officially opened by the Hon. Dorothy Kotz, Minister for the Environment in South Australia. Focussing on the issue of environmentally friendly food, Ms Kotz said that consumers are becoming more particular and more vocal about their food requirements, and that the growth of the hydroponics industry has reflected its capacity to meet many of these demands. In the fresh produce sector, hydroponics is meeting demands for a broader selection of varieties and year-round supplies, while in environmental terms, hydroponics is demonstrating improved control over emissions – for example through the collection and reuse of nutrient solutions.

As production technologies improve, the Minister said, the term ‘agriculture’ is being replaced by the term ‘Agribusiness’ and the hydroponics industry is a prime example of a new technology-based industry within primary production. While some of the issues concerning hydroponics are unique to it, Ms Kotz said, the industry also shares many issues in common with other horticultural industries.

The Minister’s Official Opening on Sunday, launched an event which boasted a number of firsts. It was the first AHA conference to feature a separate program for Retail delegates, and it was the first time the trade display was open to the general public for its full 31/2 -day duration. The 1999 Conference also featured more trade displays than any previous Conference, with 48 stands supported by 120 representatives from hydroponic manufacturers, distributors and retailers, both here and overseas.

With a first-class venue – the Adelaide Convention Centre attached to the Adeliade Hyatt – the event drew over 300 people and blended social, educational and business themes. It also had a good international presence, with delegates coming from New Zealand, Canada, the USA, South Africa, the Philippines, Mexico, Thailand, Indonesia, Mauritius and Holland. As the last Conference for the Century, the theme was “Just in Time” – for the environment, the consumer, the market, the retailer and the grower.

Part of the Futchatec display in the Exhibition area.

Grower Sessions
Challenges for the Hydroponics Industry The keynote speech, focussing on industry challenges, was presented by Rick Donnan, Vice President of the AHA, President of the ISOSC and Principal of Growool Horticultural Systems. Emphasising the theme that “challenges” can be opportunities as much as threats, Rick highlighted the key issues which currently impact upon the industry, and those with the potential for future impacts.

A food health scare is one potential “disaster” which could at some point discredit hydroponic produce, and accordingly the AHA should have disaster plans in place for such a contingency. Significantly, Rick said, hydroponic produce is commonly marketed as such in Australia, unlike many other parts of the world, and so a hydroponics health scare could have a very direct and immediate impact.

Chemical use was another significant challenge for the industry. Growers, he explained, must now have a Farm Chemical User’s Certificate, if they want to become accredited suppliers. He also reiterated the fact that no additives, other than Chlorine and Agral, are permitted in nutrient solutions anywhere in Australia.

Rick’s presentation also examined the challenges of water quality, availability and run-off; farm zoning issues, as the suburbs catch up with formerly rural areas; a lack of research funding for the hydroponics industry; and the perception, still entrenched in some sectors of the community, that hydroponics was purely a cannabis growing technique.

On this last issue, Rick maintained that the hydroponics industry should not feel itself obliged to comment on matters of cannabis politics, and that bodies like the AHA need to further promote the “reality” of hydroponics, as an increasingly important component of the food production chain around the world.

At a local Australian level, the impending introduction of the Goods & Services Tax (GST) in 2000, will pose a significant challenge for all hydroponic sectors (grower, retailer and manufacturer), as small businesses are asked to become “tax collectors”. For the hydroponic retail sector, there is the challenge to diversify, as the number of retail stores increases in number and competitiveness around Australia.

In closing, Rick encouraged his audience to look for the threats and opportunities within hydroponics, and be innovative in tackling them. As an addendum to this theme, he raised proposed plans to restructure the AHA itself, to enable the association to better meet the challenges of the future.

Hydroponics around the World
This paper, prepared by Merle Jensen from the University of Arizona, was presented on his behalf by Rick Donnan. Placed in its historical context, hydroponics has existed in a scientific sense for 2 centuries, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that Professor Gericke in the US actually put its modern foundations in place. While many early commercial attempts ended in failure, at the end of WW2, Camp Chofu in Japan used soilless culture techniques successfully, to grow vegetables in sub-irrigated gravel beds.

The first proper commercial use of hydroponic systems was in British Columbia, Canada, where soil problems led growers to adopt sawdust-based systems in the mid 1960s. Subsequently, the use of straw, peat and sand-based cultures evolved, and by the late 1970s, NFT and rockwool had appeared as commercial techniques. (Today, half the world’s NFT is in Australia, almost entirely lettuce).

Holland’s conversion to soilless growing systems began in the late 1970s, after the soil sterilant methyl bromide was found in ground water. From there, a rapid transition into rockwool-based systems occurred. In Australia, the first big move into hydroponics occurred among carnation growers, when Fusarium problems in greenhouse soil started to impact seriously.

Looking at the evolution of hydroponics statistically, the technique accounted for only about 10ha around the world in the 1940s. By the 1970s, it had grown to 300ha, and by the 1980s, it accounted for approximately 6000ha.

In the 1990s, hydroponics is confronting new issues. Low-chemical, IPM approaches are now the dominant theme in greenhouse production; growers have started collecting their run-off waters from run-to-waste systems for sterilisation and re-use; the role of beneficial organisms in the nutrient water is being further explored; and in marketing terms, there has been a major shift in Holland to selling truss tomatoes which, though harder to ripen, have found favour in the marketplace.

And the changing trends are becoming clear. In the 1980s, 90% of hydroponic systems around the world were run-to-waste. But by 1999, the proportions had shifted to 67% run-to-waste and 33% recirculating.

Proud Earth Manufacturing were a major sponsor of the 1999 Adelaide Conference.

Growing Media
A session on plant growing media was presented by Kevin Handreck, one of Australia’s foremost experts in the field. When selecting from the increasing variety of growing media available, he said, growers need to know whether a material can be re-used; how it can be sterilised; and how frequently it needs to be irrigated. In hydroponics, it must also have the ability to supply and hold nutrients.

All media need to be able to supply plants with adequate water and oxygen. A critical factor, Mr Handreck said, is the ‘air-filled porosity’ of the media material, which is the percentage of air present after irrigation has stopped and the medium has drained – 10% is the “absolute minimum”, while 35% is the upper limit. While this is a more critical consideration in shallow growing media than in large containers, Mr Handreck encouraged growers to ask their suppliers what the air-filled porosity of a media material is, or to measure it themselves.

Commenting on unsuitable media, Mr Handreck said that green waste products are problematic, as is crushed limestone, which is so alkaline it is impossible to supply enough iron to the plants. Fresh pine bark should “never be used”, he said. And never take a gamble with growing media. “Know what you’re being offered,” he concluded.

Marc Harding from Proud Earth Manufacturing, presenting awards at the Conference Dinner. Proud Earth Manufacturing was also acknowledged for its major sponsorship of the event and provision of an Administration Office, run by Marc’s wife Debra and daughters Hayley and Melissa.

Speaking on plant nutrition, Dr Ben Robinson encouraged growers to keep their nutrient feeding approach as simple as possible – “Don’t fiddle,” he advised. Growers he said, should monitor regularly, keep excellent records and if possible, also keep some bottled samples of previous batches, for future reference.

In operational terms, nutrient samples should be taken from both the top and bottom ends of a gully, and extracted by syringe for rockwool slabs.

Regular nutrient analyses are essential, and books with illustrated deficiency symptoms can be a useful tool for initial diagnosis of problems. Leaf analysis can also be a useful tool, he said, though correct leaf sampling is very important, and cost can be an issue.

Dr Robinson also highlighted local problems with water sources. For many South Australian growers, he said, every time they top up their nutrient, they double the background salinity. In this case, Reverse Osmosis (RO) equipment becomes an essential part of the system. However, disposing of RO effluent, and of waste nutrient solutions in general, remains an ongoing challenge for hydroponic industries around the world.

Speaker panels were a useful feature of the program, providing an opportunity for delegates to ask questions at the end of each session.

Niche Marketing
Steven Carruthers examined the broad range of marketing outlets for hydroponic produce. Beyond the supermarket chains, he said, there were fruit and vegetable barns, clubs and hotels, restaurants and specialty delicatessens, hospitals and schools, military kitchens, tourism and exhibition outlets, airline and shipping caterers, export and interstate markets.

Discussing issues of food safety and quality control, Steven explained that growers must now satisfy certain accredited standards, in order to access many niche markets for produce. General advice for marketing success included differentiating one’s product in some positive way, establishing relationships with customers, and staying in touch with the needs of the end user. He forecast that pre-processed hydroponic salad mixes have a big future in Australia, and suggested that growers will need to cooperate with each other, to share the costs of centralised salad processing plants.

Protected Cropping
The single most important development in greenhouse design has been increased structure height, according to greenhouse expert Geoff Connellan. In addition, the “venttilation message has got out”, whereby roof vents should represent at least 20% of the floor area of a greenhouse. In Australia, he said, retractable-roof designs are also gaining popularity.

The benefits of increased height in greenhouse structures include a more stable environment, lower maximum temperatures, and the fact that the foliage of the crop is further away from the hottest air, which accumulates in the top section of a greenhouse. Mr Connellan stressed that good control of relative humidity (RH) is also essential to produce healthy plants, and a greenhouse should incorporate RH sensors. Controlling RH, he said, means dumping the moisture through roof vents – continuous extraction fans can also be useful.

In terms of insulation and heating, the development of double-skin houses has saved growers a huge amount of energy, Mr Connellan claimed. He referred to the results of a survey of Australian greenhouse growers, which showed 68% were now using double-skin plastic on their greenhouses, compared to 32% with single-skin coverings.

For the Australian greenhouse industry to move forward the next step, it needs a better technological base, Mr Connellan claimed. It also needs to ensure higher standards, through the creation of a National Greenhouse & Equipment Suppliers Association, he said.

Following on from this presentation, Dr Stephen Goodwin from NSW Agriculture outlined a proposal to establish a research and development program for greenhouse growers, to be conducted at the Centre for Protected Cropping in Gosford, NSW. He called on grower support to help secure funding for the proposal by contacting the HRDC and their Vegetable Industry officers. Further information on the progress of this development will be included in a future issue of PH&G.

Dr Mike Nichols and Dr Bruce Christie, from Massey University in New Zealand, are experts in the area of aeroponic crop growing. They are currently working with Nanyang University in Singapore, on growing various fruiting crops in aeroponic systems. Their studies have found that cucumbers and melons, both of which are difficult to grow in NFT because of a need for greater root aeration, will thrive in aeroponic environments.

Aeroponics has also offered benefits when growing lettuce in Singapore’s hot and humid climate. Dr S. K. Lee at Nanyang successfully produces aeroponic lettuce in high temperature conditions, by spraying the roots with a nutrient solution which is 10°C below the ambient temperature.

According to Dr Christie, other potential applications for aeroponic technologies include raising cuttings, growing plants with medicinal roots (such as Kava), and even raising seed potatoes. Potatoes, his research has found, exhibit rapid multiplication under aeroponic conditions.

Simon Lennard and Dr Lynette Morgan from Suntec Hydroponic Consultants in NZ, presented a workshop on Silicates in hydroponics.

Pest Control – IPM & Chemical Use
A South Australian flower producer, Dominic Cavallaro now also consults to the greenhouse industry on Integrated Pest Management (IPM) issues.

His message was that with supermarkets now often conducting their own chemical residue testing, growers can no longer put IPM in the ‘too hard basket’. If a supermarket finds chemical excess in produce, he explained, they will stop buying form that grower. Accordingly, growers need to record all their spraying procedures and carefully follow witholding periods.

To successfully implement IPM practices, monitoring of the crop and pest populations is vital. Start with sticky traps, he suggested, and check them constantly. Staff should be trained to identify pests and report back to the grower, while growers must learn to distinguish beneficial insects from pest insects. The mindset of spraying to a schedule, regardless of pest populations, has to be abandoned, Mr Cavallaro stressed.

In terms of beneficial insects, a number are now available to greenhouse growers in Australia, including parasitic wasps, beetles, predatory mites and nematodes. While no bio-control agents are yet available to counter Western Flower Thrip, two native predators are currently being researched for that purpose.

Another speaker, Phil Sanson, followed up the theme of chemical safety, also emphasizing the necessity of recording which chemicals have been used, their volumes and the date of spraying. Resistance problems mean growers should never exceed recommended doses, he said, and should alternate the chemical groups they use.

Canadian Scene
Douglas Marlow from Grodania in Canada provided an overview of trends in Canadian greenhouse production. Among the next generation of crop tools emerging, he said, are “hanging troughs”, which can be raised or lowered to suit the greenhouse operators. New growing practices to emerge in Canada include ‘Interplanting’, whereby new seedlings are nursed by the older plants. This system lets the grower plant 2 crops per year.

Glass is still the material of choice among Canadian greenhouse growers, since it offers the best light transmission. However, one of the challenges for the future, Mr Marlow said, is to find successful alternatives to glass for construction. Canadian growers also need to adopt technologies that will lead to the recirculation of their nutrient solution, without compromising on the quality of their product, he said.

Bush Foods
Amani Ahmed from the University of Technology in Sydney, described her PhD project growing Australian native food plants in rockwool-based hydroponic systems. Out of 4 species grown, one – Warrigal Greens – has showed particular promise and will become the basis of further research.

A group of intrepid Conference delegates returns from a nature walk, in the Cleland Nature Reserve north of Adelaide.

Tours and Workshops
To complement the Retailers’ Program at this year’s conference, a tour of retail stores was offered in addition to the traditional hydroponic farm tours. With over 50 stores, Adelaide has more hydroponic outlets than any other Australian city, and the tour provided an interesting insight into the industry for both interstate and overseas guests.

A selection of hydroponic farms in the Adelaide region also generously opened their doors to tour groups attending the Conference. Operations varied from large and sophisticated, to very small family-run enterprises; Crops included flowers (roses, carnations, chrysanthemums), lettuce, salad mixes, and tomatoes. Of note was the vast Chiquita International Hydroponics north of Adelaide, with its large modern greenhouse design and high level of water purification, producing high quality tomatoes.

Included on several tours was a look at Adelaide’s impressive Plant Research Centre, run by the South Australian Research & Development Institute (SARDI). This high-tech greenhouse facility conducts a wide range of horticultural research, including a recent project which looked at slow sand filtration for treating hydroponic waste waters.

The final day of the Conference was devoted to an excellent program of workshops, so delegates could attend smaller-sized sessions on topics of specific interest to them. These covered such diverse areas as Aeroponics, CO2 Enrichment, Developing a QA system, Growing in Rockwool, Integrated Pest Management, Managing Waste Water, Ozone for Air & Water Purification, Plant Diseases, Silica & its Effects on Hydroponic Plants, Strawberry Growing, and Water Conditioning. On a management theme, there were workshops on E-commerce and the implications of the GST for hydroponic growers and retailers. Other workshops included Guidelines for Intending Growers and Occupational Health and Safety. The Horticultural Research & Development Corporation, an important sponsor of the Conference, also provided a workshop, on How to get HRDC Funding for your Hydroponic Project.

Another first at the Adelaide Conference was the launch of two new industry awards, sponsored by Casper Publications. The Award for “Best Exhibitor” was won by the Greenhouse Superstore in Adelaide, and the award for “Outstanding Contribution to the Australian Hydroponics Industry” went to Rick Donnan.

Bruce Retallick (left) receives a special award from president John Kennedy (right) in recognition of his 10 years service as AHA Administrator.

Rick Donnan accepting his award for “Outstanding Contribution to the Australian Hydroponics Industry.”

Craig Gribble from the Greenhouse Superstore in Adelaide with the “Best Exhibitor” award, presented by Steven Carruthers from Casper Publications.

Outgoing Administrator of the AHA, Bruce Retallick, was also recognised with a special award presented at the Banquet Dinner, acknowledging his foundation membership and 10 years of service to the Australian Hydroponics Association.

Major sponsors for the 1999 AHA Conference were Proud Earth Manufacturing Distributors, the HRDC, Growers’ Supplies (SA), Jetset Travel and Hydro Mania.

For a report on the Retailer Sessions, see Retailers’ Corner, on pg 21 of this issue.