Issue 61: Quality Assured Cocktail Tomatoes

Issue 61
November/December – 2001
Story Title: Quality Assured Cocktail Tomatoes
Author: Steven Carruthers

The implementation of a quality assurance program was a critical factor to the success of this New Zealand hydroponic operation.

Having the courage to try something different has paid off for Paul and Lisa Berryman, who own and operate a successful hydroponic tomato operation in Otaki, New Zealand. With absolutely no experience in intensive horticulture before purchasing an existing greenhouse tomato operation, you would rate their chance of succeeding low. However, the Berryman’s recognised the importance of belonging to a strong industry association, and became participants in New Zealand’s Fresh Produce Quality Assurance Program. By following this accredited QA program, Paul and Lisa were able to put in place the protocols necessary to run a successful hydroponic tomato production operation.

The Fresh Produce Quality Assurance Program was a pro-active move by New Zealand growers to address consumer concerns relating to food safety and quality. In response to these concerns, VegFed, a trade association run by vegetable growers, developed a quality assurance (QA) program for its 3,500 members. Soon after, the NZ Fruitgrowers’ Federation recognised the benefit of a single industry QA standard and joined the VegFed program to create the NZ Fresh Produce Quality Assurance Program. The QA manual allows growers to custom design their QA program according to their crop and growing system.

The VegFed quality assurance program is a HACCP-based program that can be used to feed into full HACCP food safety programm that may be required by food processors. HACCP is an acronym for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point, and it represents a comprehensive QA system that identifies the steps in the process where there are potential problems which may affect the quality or safety of the finished product. In July 2001, the VegFed program became mandatory for all growers supplying fresh produce into NZ supermarkets. Growers must pass an on-site assessment annually, and open their operations for QA inspection and verification at any time. Inspection, auditing and verification is conducted by AgriQuality New Zealand, an independent national organisation that specialises in management assurance services.

Paul and Lisa admit the last two years have been a steep learning curve, and it has involved a lot of hard work. If there was anything Paul brought with him from his former occupation as a chimney cleaner, it was the notion of cleanliness, which is evident at every point of the growing process in this tomato operation. And perhaps Lisa’s background as a pharmacist assistant helped them overcome the riddles of plant nutrition. Both agree the QA program is a critical factor to their success. Today, the Berryman’s are committed, professional growers whose high-quality cocktail tomatoes can be found in supermarkets from Wellington to Auckland.

Production Facilities
The Berryman operation consists of two ageing greenhouses (600sqm each), and a newer Redpath greenhouse (1,080sqm). The Redpath greenhouse was re-covered in late 2,000 with double-skin plastic following damage from an infrequent tempest. This greenhouse is home to more than 2200 plants. The older greenhouses house 1,200 plants each. An ageing glasshouse is used to raise seedlings, and to trial different tomato varieties. The inside temperature in the glasshouse is 3-4°C warmer than the plastic – covered houses.

The Redpath greenhouse has automatic ridge venting, but manual side vents. The two older greenhouses are fully closed systems that use automatic fan venting controlled by an Arcon, dual-fan controller pre-set to come on when the inside air temperature reaches 27°C.

Outside temperatures range from 7°C in winter when the region is exposed to cold southerly winds, up to the occasional 40°C in summer. An LPG heating system delivers hot water at 30°C via above ground heating pipes in each greenhouse for winter and night heating. Heating represents the largest expense to the grower. Rising energy costs, combined with the district’s coldest winter in 30 years, has seen heating cost running at around NZ$800 per month.

While the older greenhouses are orientated east:west, the newer greenhouse is aligned north:south. In both cases, plant rows go across the width of the greenhouse, at right angles to the greenhouse axis. According to Paul, one greenhouse is colder than the others because it is more exposed to southerly winds, but he hasn’t noticed a significant difference in light levels between the two orientations.

The floor area in the Redpath greenhouse is cement. The sand-covered floors in the older greenhouses are covered with white weed mat that is replaced every three years. In both cases, the floor is free of moisture and plant debris.

The growing system is a closed NFT system. The flexible plastic gullies are supported on raised steel beds with a 1:50 fall. As part of the quality assurance program for disease prevention, the gullies are replaced between crops.

Seedlings are started in jiffy plugs, and capillary mat used to help hold the plant roots. PVC frames down each row are used to assist layering as plants grow to the wire.

Although several tomato varieties have been trialled over the past two years, Paul and Lisa mainly grow ‘Sweet-100’, also known as Sweet Millions. According to Paul, this cocktail variety grows more vigorously and produces higher yields than other varieties. The variety also has reported resistance to fusarium wilt.

Each greenhouse has its own independent growing system as part of the grower’s risk management strategy. Nutrients are mixed with good quality bore (well) water (118ppm solids and pH 6.1), that is tested every six months, and the nutrient formula adjusted if required. Automatic system dosing is managed by a Redpath ‘Growers Mate’ controller. For ‘Sweet-100’ cocktail tomatoes, the system is preset to operate at CF 30 and pH 5.6.

Like many hydroponic setups in New Zealand, the feed tank for each growing system is small compared to Australian systems. The tank capacity for the large greenhouse is 1,000 litres, and 600 litres for each of the smaller greenhouses.

There is also a trend among NZ growers to work with expert consultants who manage crop nutritional aspects, freeing the grower to concentrate on other aspects of their business. Although Paul weighs out and mixes the fertilisers, well-known consultant Don Slade is a regular visitor to take water and tissue samples for analysis.

Hygiene and Safety
The Berryman operation employs four casual workers who are mainly involved in deleafing and picking. Cleanliness is everything, from the anti-bacterial footbath to donning clean uniform tops and cotton gloves before entering the greenhouse. Tops and gloves are provided to workers at no cost. At the end of the working day, the they are collected and laundered on site.

“No clean tops and gloves, no work,” says Paul.

Pickers are paid by 5kg bucket. They are also paid for buckets that leave the greenhouse filled with plant debris. The average picker will fill five to six buckets per hour, or around 70 buckets/day. The gang of pickers use small, mobile trollies to work their way down each row. The buckets are colour-coded to simplify the tally process among the pickers.

As part of the Berryman’s quality management system, once the fruit is picked, it will spend no more than an hour in the greenhouse.

Pest and Disease
There have been no major disease problems, which Paul puts down to the absence of moisture in the greenhouses, and their strict sanitation program. Between crops, greenhouses are stripped down completely, PVC racks and equipment scrubbed and sterilised, and the plastic growing gullies replaced altogether.

Paul reports only minor outbreaks of whitefly, which are spot-treated with Neem Oil, described in New Zealand as a “soft”, organic alternative to “hard” pesticides. Otherwise, the only insect problem that the Berryman’s have had to face, is the escape of bumblebee pollinators, which are attracted to lavender bushes located outside the greenhouse. To overcome this problem, Paul has since placed potted lavender plants inside the greenhouse, which he says has attracted more bees when the side vents are open. To assist flower pollination, Paul taps the overhead wires twice daily – morning and lunchtime.

Tomatoes are picked at the three-quarter colour stage. It takes three days after harvesting to reach full colour. The cocktail tomatoes are packed in 250g punnets, with 12 punnets to the tray. In New Zealand, the market makes no price distinction between hydroponic and soil-grown tomatoes. The growers return will range from NZ$1.50 to $5/punnet. Paul said anything below $1.50 is not a viable return for the grower.

It’s been an unseasonal year. Daytime temperatures outside the greenhouse have been erratic, ranging from 13°C one day to 22°C the next. The temperature differences over a short period of time have slowed the crop down. Not just greenhouse tomatoes, but vegetable crops grown outdoors. The Berryman’s market advantage over soil growers, is a controlled environment and year-round production. This year, they will get a good price for their cocktail tomatoes, including an experimental crop of yellow-pear tomatoes grown in soil under glass.

Berryman’s cocktail tomatoes are sold directly to Turners & Growers, New Zealand’s largest providor, where they are on-sold to supermarkets in Auckland and Wellington. Paul and Lisa also supply their tomatoes to some small catering companies.

Other Crops
Adjacent to the greenhouse production facilities, Paul and Lisa grow a range of other crops in soil, including hydrangeas destined for the Canadian cut-flower market, snowpeas, baby corn and rhubarb. At the time of my farm visit, rhubarb stalks were fetching NZ$18/10kg stalks.

Final Remarks
Implementing a quality assurance program is an insurance policy for growers, retailers and consumers. It provides accountability, traceability and quality control, which in turn leads to consumer reassurance. It also reduces risks of health and safety issues so consumers can buy with confidence.

For Paul and Lisa Berryman, converting from a chimney cleaner and pharmacist assistant, respectively, to professional horticulture producers was a major career leap. In an industry littered with failures owing to poor business planning, hard work and a guiding hand from a strong industry association, has turned this cocktail tomato operation into a commercial success.

Website Resources
The New Zealand Vegetable & Potato Growers’ Federation (Inc), known as Vegfed

The New Zealand Fruitgrowers Federation

New Zealand Agrichemical Education Trust and The GROWSAFE Training Program

The Australia New Zealand Food Authority ANZFA is an independent bi-national organisation

Agriculture Western Australia

What is a Quality Assurance System? – by David Nebauer
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 programmes into every part of their business.

There are three 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 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:

Approved Supplier Program
This is the simplest form of QA system, developed by individual retail supermarket chains and some major produce 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 the farm if they are to continue to supply produce to them. The Woolworths Vendor Quality Management Standard is an example of this type of QA system. For most growers, an Approved Supplier Program will be sufficient to satisfy their customer requirements.

Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) is a more comprehensive QA system than the Approved Supplier Program. A HACCP plan involves analysing each step of the production process, from seed planting to delivery of the final product. Once identified, these potential problem areas become the Critical Control Points, and formal procedures are set in place 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.

Quality Management Program
This is the highest level of QA, and involves incorporating a comprehensive focus on quality and safety practices into all aspects of the business. Quality Management Programs focus not only on the product, but on all aspects of the business operation. A Quality Management Program can assist to improve the efficiency, effectiveness and profitability of the business.

Quality Management Programs are formally audited and certified by the organisation that has developed the standard, and once the audit has been passed, the grower receives official certification of compliance.

Some Quality Management Programs 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 Quality Management Programs are SQF2000 (HACCP-based), the NZ Fresh Produce Quality Assurance Program (HACCP-based), and ISO9002 (not HACCP-based).  Ω

PH&G Nov/Dec 2001 / Issue 61