Issue 64: Koorawatha Hydroponics

Issue 64
May/June – 2002
Story Title: Koorawatha Hydroponics
by: Steven Carruthers

The devastating bushfires that struck New South Wales on Christmas Day 2001, and burned until early January 2002, were the worst in living memory. For Garry and Lorraine Muirhead, it was a summer they will never forget.

The fireball completely melted the western end of the greenhouse. Hot embers deflated the double skin roof, and burnt holes in the side wall and floor covering.

The ten kilometre drive from Sussex Inlet to their rural home and greenhouse business was the longest journey of their lives. Two days earlier, on New Year’s eve, Garry and Lorraine Muirhead were forced to flee their home and retirement investment as the worst bushfires in living memory came hurtling towards them. There was no time to grab anything except some bedding and some treasured photographs. Trapped between the sea and two massive fire fronts that had joined, with the only road out blocked by flames, they would spend the next two days fleeing from one place of safety to the next as firefighters struggled to control the main blaze threatening Sussex Inlet, 250km south of Sydney. The plight of the small community and tourists trapped on the beach would be broadcast around the world. However, the real trauma came at daybreak on 2 January when the locals on what affectionately became known as the ‘Berara Beach Hilton’, were allowed to return to their homes.

“It was the longest journey of our lives,” said Garry, “not knowing if we had a home or business to return to.”

As they silently drove the road back home, the ferocity and discriminating nature of the blaze was evident everywhere. In places, the flames had leapt the tops of houses, yet went through others. Where aluminium signs and glass bottles were gnarled and twisted from the 1,000°C plus heat, a few metres away an azalea was in full bloom. For Garry and Lorraine, the principals of Koorawatha Hydroponics, the flames had leapt the family home and greenhouse, although the plastic wall at one end of the greenhouse was completely destroyed, and the double-skin roof deflated by hot embers. While the cucumber crop was completely lost, remarkably, the surviving tomato plants sprouted new shoots and continued to produce fruit in the days and weeks after the fire, bringing in much-needed cash flow to keep the business running, as well as food for the surviving wildlife. Kangaroos, wallabies, bandicoots and lorikeets overcame their timidity of humans to feed on second-grade and fire-damaged tomatoes.

“We put all the seconds in boxes at night and let them eat,” said Garry.

Inside the now exposed greenhouse, a swarm of bees had established a new hive, pollinating the remaining flowers, bringing on a welcome flush of fruit, albeit smaller than usual.

“I reckon there was a guardian angel over the place,” said Lorraine, the strain of her ordeal clearly showing.

“We put in a sprinkler system with water drawn from the dam,” added Garry, “but we can’t understand why the intense heat didn’t melt the whole plastic.”

Garry and Lorraine were amazed that the fire only damaged two sides of the greenhouse and the roof. Even more remarkable, the LPG storage tank alongside the greenhouse escaped unscathed. With flames licking the grass around the massive storage cylinder, the fireball suddenly changed direction, leaping the LPG storage tank and greenhouse to continue on its destructive path through the tall eucalypts and a large pile of milled timber on the property.

Garry Murihead – surviving tomato plants that continued to flower and produce fruit.

Lorraine Murihead – Replanting started immediately after the fire.

Garry and Lorraine are relative newcomers to hydroponic production, selling their travel agency business three years earlier to start a commercial venture as part of their income-producing retirement plan. This was their best crop yet, at the height of fruiting when the bushfire struck. Although the insurance company had refused flood, wind and crop damage cover, as luck would have it, it had agreed to fire cover.

The modern, state-of-the-art greenhouse was completed in April 2000. The growing area is 1,800m2. Attached to the greenhouse is a large packing shed which also houses the environmental control computer, nutrient dosing equipment and LPG heating system, all of which escaped fire damage. Rebuilding and replanting the greenhouse began before the smoke, which lingered for another 10 days, had cleared.

Before the greenhouse was fire damaged, conditions inside were automatically kept between 16-280C and 65-70% humidity, the optimum parameters for growing tomatoes. The computer-controlled gull wings in the roof would adjust to the exterior wind, sun, precipitation and temperature conditions. In the days following the blaze, with the western end wall open to the elements, Garry noticed the surviving tomato plants had accelerated in growth as a result of the extra airflow. While the greenhouse was originally designed for cooler southern Australian conditions, Garry believes it was over-engineered for the milder NSW climate. As a result, he plans to install an insect screen and roll up cover at one end of the greenhouse to improve air flow.

While the insurance covered the damage to the greenhouse, Garry and Lorraine will not be able to afford the large LPG heating costs during the coming winter owing to its rise since the introduction of GST. He is currently investigating solar and wind energy to generate electricity to heat water for the hydronic heating system. To help retain heat inside the greenhouse, Garry also plans to install retractable Living Shade thermal screens.

The run-to-waste growing system uses Pinus radiata wood shavings as the growing medium, which Garry said offers better aeration properties compared to sawdust.

“The disadvantage of wood shavings is that plants dry out quicker,” he said.

“Both the cucumber and tomato crops are staggered, and the EC needs to be just right to maintain both young and mature plants. Everything seems to be happy at EC 3. We hydrate once a fortnight when we don’t feed the plants for one whole day,” added Garry.

The pH is maintained between 5.8 and 6.0. While the drain EC fluctuates, the pH comes out at between 5.7 and 5.8.

The intensity of the bushfire twisted aluminum signs.

Fire damage to the side wall. Fire embers deflated the double-skin roof.

Although the main crop is tomato, Koorawatha Hydroponics (Koorawatha is the Aborigine name for tall pines) also produce cucumbers, capsicum and basil. The tomato variety is prophetically called ‘Rimfire’, a Rijk Zwaan cluster tomato which brings a better price than loose greenhouse tomatoes.

“We were just starting to get into cluster tomatoes,” said Lorraine,” but once the picking was interrupted by the fire, everything went haywire. The plants are still flowering and we will try and keep them a little longer. We usually pull them out when they get to a certain stage and start again, but we’ll hold it over a bit longer and try and get that last truss.”

The run-to-waste solution is collected in a storage tank where it is sold in three litre containers as garden and indoor plant fertiliser. According to Garry, rose growers love it when used as a foliar spray, and the locals report flowers on their indoor plants that they didn’t get before. The spent nutrient solution is sold at fifty cents a litre, and many locals bring their own container.

Plants continued to produce fruit after the fire, although smaller than usual.

Tomato seconds were put to one side to feed the surviving wildlife.

Garry and Lorraine currently market their high quality produce to restaurants and farmer markets from Sussex Inlet to Ulladulla and Nowra. Situated on the only road in and out of the popular holiday hamlet of Sussex Inlet, they also attract a lot of passer-by traffic for their farm-fresh produce. The Muirheads have also joined a local group of growers to market a basket of produce unique to the district.

“That’s where the future lays for us,” said Garry. “You can’t rely on the Sydney markets anymore, nor can we compete with cheap imports from interstate. Although supermarkets sell truss tomatoes at $7.95kg, there is little margin for the grower, and we need to have a set price in order to be able to budget for the next 12 months or so.”

The Koorawatha complex is open for organised tours and picnics under the tall eucalypts which already show signs of recovery with new green shoots.The tour takes around one and a half hours and visitors are given the option of paying $5 per person, or taking the equivalent in farm produce. Garry and Lorraine also offer B&B facilities, and guests are allowed to fish the silver perch from the well-stocked farm dam.

Lorraine is a well-known artist in the district, her colourful drawings of black swans, commorants, sea eagles and pelicans captured on the banners that line the main street leading into Sussex Inlet. The packhouse, which also serves as a shop front for farm produce, is adorned with many of her photorealist paintings of local birdlife, which are offered for sale.

With more than 20 years’ experience in the travel industry, Garry travels 100km four days a week to Nowra, the district’s provincial centre, where he lectures in tourism and catering at the Technical and Further Education (TAFE) college. Koorawatha Hydroponics also supply the fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs used in the cooking classes.

With their backs against the wall, Garry said these extra revenue streams will help rebuild Koorawatha Hydroponics, and pay the GST on replacement equipment which is not covered in the insurance policy. Like many other rural industries affected by the devastating bushfires, Garry and Lorraine have received support from local and State governments. In many cases, it will take many years for some rural industries to recover. In a region renowned for its high quality honey, local beekeepers lost over 700 hives and an important honey-producing habitat for the bees. Industry also rallied behind the districts largest poultry farm – competitors as far away as Sydney sent replacement chicks at a minimum cost so the farm could continue operating.

In the meantime, the Muirheads have a lot of hard work ahead of them to rebuild Koorawatha Hydroponics. Although their retirement dream may have suffered a setback, they are determined to overcome the challenges ahead to make their business a success.

Garry and Lorraine Muirhead can be contacted by email: