July/August – 2002
Story Title: A Rosy Future
Edited by: Steven Carruthers
Shifting from traditional growing methods to hydroponic cropping systems has proved a winner for this Australian rose producer. Combined with modern glasshouse technology and state-of-the-art processing equipment, the nursery’s productivity efficiencies are among the best in the world.
The Flora International sorting process produces attractive, even rose bunches which satisfy market requirements for quality and beauty.
Situated on the urban fringe of Western Sydney, Flora International is set to become one of the largest rose growing facilities in Australia. The hydroponic rose operation was recently named the winner of the 2002 Western Sydney Agribusiness Award for the Most Outstanding Agribusiness contribution by a small or medium size enterprise. The awards, an initiative of the NSW State Government, recognise excellence and innovation in industry in areas that are of strategic importance to the future of the region’s economy.
Flora International joins a growing number of rose growers worldwide moving to state-of-the-art technologies to achieve higher production efficiencies.The12-acre (4.85ha) rose farm in Leppington has been used to grow roses for 35 years, but the operation recently switched from soil practices to hydroponic technologies when the nursery changed ownership. Flora International purchased the nursery as a going concern in December 1999, which included its 40 full-time workforce. According to long-time Nursery Manager, Peter Davidson, the shift to hydroponics was to achieve higher productivity efficiencies. In hydroponics, planting densities are much higher than in soil (about 7.5 rose plants/sqm), which means more stems, and there are also environmental benefits.
“Improving production efficiencies was paramount, but Flora International also has a ‘green’ attitude,” said Peter. “We wanted to collect our run-off water, and not contaminate the environment.”
Planting densities are much higher in hydroponic production systems, which means more stems. These three-week old transplants require little watering during the early stages of development. INSET: The cocopeat medium is reported to stimulate root growth in roses with more fine root hairs.
Watering cycles are controlled via a network of valves, irrigation lines and spray emitters.
There are three European glasshouse designs on the Flora International site, representing a total area of 30,000sqm under glass. All the glasshouses have roof ventilation windows which open and close according to inside environmental conditions, as well as outside wind speed for storm protection.
Both the ventilation and heating systems are controlled by a Priva climate control system. The pipe temperature for the hydronic distribution system is regulated between 70-75˚C to maintain an ideal air temperature of around 24˚C. Climate control set-points can be programmed for each glasshouse according to the stage of plant growth. For example, glasshouses with new plantings have less foliage, with more demands on the heating system to maintain optimum temperatures on cool days; those containing mature plants with more foliage put more demands on the ventilation system to control temperature and humidity on warm days.
Cocopeat growing system
The growing system developed by Flora International is a cocopeat media system designed to grow-on longer root stock originally destined to go into the ground. The management team came up with a polystyrene, broccoli-like growing container elevated above the ground for improved air circulation, and a plastic-lined drain system below the containers to collect run-off solution.
The rose farm uses medium-grade cocopeat sourced from the mountainous regions of Sri Lanka and marketed worldwide by Sydney-based Galuku Pty Ltd. It has a stable pH between 5.8-6.5 and is noted for its good air volume (20-21%) and water-holding capacity (between 33-60%, depending on the grade). The strong woody fibres (lignin) means the cocopeat degrades slowly over a recommended five year work-life, due to its organic material, it is easy to dispose of, and is more cost effective than rockwool and perlite, although Flora International plans to trial rockwool to compare the two substrates.
In 1995, cocopeat received qualification from RHP, the substrate quality control organisation. With the gradual phase-out of peat-based products in the European Union over the next decade, worldwide consumption of cocopeat as an alternative substrate is expected to expand at around 15% each year for the next 15 years (FloraCulture International, March 2002).
“Cocopeat is a relatively new growing media for Flora International. It’s especially good for hydroponic roses where it is reported to stimulate root growth and the development of fine root hairs,” said Andy Swan, principal of Galuku Pty Ltd.
“Galuku has been working with hydroponic rose growers since late 1980’s with excellent results,” he added.
Nursery Manager Peter Davidson can monitor and control glasshouse climate and fertigation programs from the office, the processing station, or from home.
Nutrient solution is delivered to each plant via an array of valves, micro-irrigation lines and spray emitters, controlled by a PB Arco, fertigator unit imported from Holland. Nutrient solution enters the system at EC 1.2 mS/sq.cm and pH 5.5. The drain solution is EC 0.5 mS/sq.cm. Although the nutrient solution is run-to-waste, some of the run-off is mixed with raw water and fresh nutrients and reused. The balance is held in a 500,000L storage dam. Eventually, this water will be used to irrigate a five-acre tree plantation at the rear of the site, which will be harvested for cut foliage.
The fertigation system uses time and light intensity factors to regulate irrigation cycles. The first watering doesn’t commence until 90 minutes after sunrise. Subsequent waterings occur every 20 minutes for 30 seconds, or when light intensity reaches 75W/sq.cm, whichever comes first. Five hours before sunset, light intensity becomes the governing factor for further waterings. On a very hot day, plants can receive up to 30 waterings.
Plants are not watered during the night. Because the media dries out overnight, there is usually no run-off until the third watering when the drain can be up to 30% of input.
Depending on the stage of plant growth and time of year, either phosphoric acid or nitric acid are used to buffer the pH � the normal pH of the raw water is around 6.8 – 6.9. Nitric acid is used during vegetative growth.
The drain water is analysed every two weeks and, if necessary, the formulation adjusted. While Flora International use a local service provider to monitor and analyse the drain solution at regular intervals, the company retains the services of a European grower advisor who visits the site annually. A software program provided by the advisor is used to analyse trends in the drain water, and to calculate fertiliser adjustments to a standard rose formula.
Pest and disease problems
The main disease problems associated with rose production are downy mildew and botrytis. Flora International maintain a strict program for pest and disease control that mainly relies on good sanitation practices, daily scouting, and the use of bio-controls. Yellow sticky traps throughout the glasshouses are monitored for aphids, fungus gnats, thrips, western flower thrips (WFT) and whitefly.
Flora International grow 36 beautiful rose varieties, with eight new varieties of spray roses currently in production. The spray roses offer an opportunity for the company to produce bouquets on-site, to be shipped packaged to wholesalers and other specialty markets.
Like colours in clothing fashions, the popularity of rose colours changes each year and the grower needs to keep up with demands by florists and consumers for the latest colours. According to Peter Davidson, the ability to change plant varieties according to market demands is another strong advantage of hydroponic cropping systems.
The selection of rose varieties is based on many factors including colour, fragrance, vase life, and whether it has thorns or not. According to Peter, thorny roses need good characteristics to find market acceptance. The speed of handling thorny roses is a productivity issue at the harvesting, processing and resale points. Flora International also look for disease resistant varieties, so that the nursery can more easily meet environmental standards.
Flora International offer a wide range of colours including red, white, lemon, champagne, pale pink, orange, bright yellow, cream, and bicoloured roses. Red, the most important colour of all, dominates 40% of production. This year’s novelty rose is coloured hot pink. A novelty rose is defined as any rose that makes you look twice.
To be able to grow the latest rose varieties, an important aspect for the grower is a connection with a successful rose breeder, who may take eight years to develop a rose that only remains fashionable for three years. In today’s competitive rose market, the stakes are high. Flora International was recently appointed an agent for German rose breeder Rosen Tantau, who are dedicated to the cultivation of novel varieties and the selection, testing and production of seedlings. Flora International plans to import selected new rose varieties for the Australian market, where they will be held in a specially designed quarantine glasshouse for three months. When completed, the on-site quarantine area will comply with strict AQIS (Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service) regulations for imported plant stock.
The sorting machine is capable of processing 9,500 stems per hour. Bunches are sorted on the basis of stem length and thickness. INSET: Flowers are wrapped in plastic netting to minimise bruising. Flora International plans to trade direct from the farm.
Rose production varies greatly during the year with the busiest period leading up to Valentines Day.
“We are always flowering and we never prune,” said Peter Davidson. “The only time that we actually program the flowering is for Valentines Day. We carry out a process called ‘topping’, which means that we cut all the growth back in time for Valentines Day.”
Flora International produce up to 80,000 rose stems in the week before Valentines Day. Peter admits the biggest problem is having enough people trained to harvest and process the stems at this time of year, when the workforce swells to 60 workers.
Cultural practices include ‘bending’, a popular technique among hydroponic rose growers. With the higher planting densities in hydroponic cropping systems, bending lets more light get to the plants. Bending is carried out during the first three to six months after planting.
Rose processing is handled by a robotic machine that has been specially developed to sort roses on the basis of stem length and quality. It does this job for all rose varieties. The Aweta processing machine, purchased from Holland at a cost of $400,000, consists of a sorting section and a number of bunching stations. The sorting process produces attractive, even bunches which satisfy market requirements for quality and beauty; a perfect end-product leaves the nursery. The machine is equipped with a computer which controls all functions of the sorting and bunching process. The Aweta processor can handle up to 9,500 roses per hour and can be set to sort stem lengths of between 25 and 100cm. The grower can, if required, switch to another rose type in the middle of the sorting process or elastic binding. The computer records grading data and coordinates the processors of the bunching stations. It provides a correspondingly clear overview of the daily totals, subtotals, filling grades, etc. The computer is also linked to the company’s central computer system, enabling all data to be directly processed in the commercial administration.
The processing machine sorts rose stems according to both length and thickness. The roses to be processed are hung at a convenient working height in the conveyor forks. An optical system ‘reads’ the image of the entire rose and sends the data to the computer. This measures the length and thickness of the stem and then, on the basis of this data, allocates the rose to the correct length category.
Once the bunch has been formed, the elastic binder goes into action. The bunch is tied and the stems are trimmed to the programmed size, after which a robot arm picks the bunch up and gently places it on a collection table. Bunches are then placed in the cool room until they go to the flower market. Flora International market their quality roses through the major wholesale cut-flower market at Flemington. The company also plans to trade direct from the farm at Leppington.
Flowers will last longer if you follow these guidelines:
+ Dissolve cut flower food (available from most nurseries) in water.
+ Use a clean vase.
+ Cut at least 3cm (1″) from the stems. DO NOT CRUSH STEMS.
+ Strip off any leaves that will be submerged in the water.
+ Keep in a cool place.
+ Recut stems and top up vase with cut flower food every few days.
Enjoy your roses.
Flora International harvest their roses seven days a week, twice a day in summer and once a day in winter. Labour is the nursery’s largest cost, so it’s no surprise that production efficiencies are the company’s highest priority. With an annual yield of 210 stems/sqm, worker productivity is calculated weekly by hours worked per square metre for each greenhouse.
While the cost of producing roses in hydroponics is greater than traditional cropping systems, this is compensated for by higher planting densities and yields, as well as better workforce efficiencies. Other major benefits of hydroponics include more efficient fertiliser and water management, which is good news for the environment. By combining hydroponic cropping systems with modern glasshouse technologies, and state-of-the-art environmental control and processing equipment, Flora International can look forward to a rosy future.
Flora International is the winner of the 2002 Western Sydney Agribusiness Award for the Most Outstanding Agribusiness contribution by a small or medium-size enterprise. Pictured with the award is company Financial Director, John Spring.
Galuku Pty Ltd