Issue 69: Reader Survey Report

Issue 69
March/April – 2003
Story Title: Reader Survey Report
by: Steven Carruthers

During the last quarter of 2002, (PH&G) conducted a survey targeted at its Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses readers. The objective of the survey was to investigate: the systems and crops grown in hydroponic and greenhouse environments; industry trends and future research funding opportunities; and issues that could be explored in future editions of the magazine. The questionnaire consisted of a combination of 32 closed and open-ended questions and asked for additional suggestions or comments. Readers were encouraged to respond, knowing that their practices and opinions were valued by the editorial team here at PH&G.

Survey responses were analysed by the National Centre for Greenhouse Horticulture (NCGH), NSW Agriculture. Unlike previous industry-related surveys, respondents were not asked to identify themselves in the hope of gaining data in areas typically regarded as proprietary information by growers. Although responses were below expectation,the quality of information was very good. Responses to each question were tabulated and the percentage of respondents calculated where appropriate. However, there are three issues to consider when reviewing the results of this survey:

– the sampling method employed was not random and results cannot be extrapolated to the whole hydroponic and greenhouse industry;
– it is difficult to estimate how the voluntary nature of the survey has influenced the responses; and
– the small number of respondents may not accurately represent the total readership of the magazine.

With these considerations in mind, it is possible to draw conclusions about the group of respondents surveyed and gain a valuable insight into the hydroponic and greenhouse industry.

Demographic data
The vast majority of respondents (81%) were aged between 25 and 54 (Table 1), implying that the long-term future of the hydroponics and greenhouse industry is assured. Over three-quarters (76%) of respondents came from Australia,with all states represented in the survey (Table 2) – the highest responses came from NSW and Victoria. The balance of responses (24%) came from eight countries representing all continents, showing that the magazine enjoys a wide international readership. The majority of respondents (96%) spoke English as a first language.

One of the most interesting revelations of the survey was the high number of grower readers (Table 3), representing 78% of all respondents. Commercial growers were by far the largest group (58%), followed by hobby growers (20%). The ratio of commercial growers to hobby growers is a turnaround on the first reader survey conducted by the magazine in 1992, when 29.4% of readers were commercial growers and 44.1% were hobby growers. This points to strong industry growth in the commercial sector over the past decade. This is also reflected in the length of time growers have been involved in the industry (Table 4). In their self-assessment of knowledge in hydroponics, more than two-thirds (64.5%) of respondents considered their level of knowledge was above average or advanced, compared to three-quarters of respondents who rated themselves as having only basic or average knowledge back in 1992 (Table 5).

When asked to describe their operation (Table 6), the majority of respondents said they were running a commercial greenhouse (54%), followed by hobby greenhouse growers (17%). This data confirms the magazine is reaching its target audience.

Crops and systems
The most popular crops grown (Table 7) were tomatoes (61%) and Mediterranean herbs (42%). Lettuce, cucumbers, Asian herbs, capsicum and strawberries were the next most commonly grown crops. Roses, grown by 13% of respondents, were the most popular flower.

And what type of systems are growers using? Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) is the most widely used growing system, representing 41% of respondents (Table 8 ). This is followed by the potting system, much lower at 22%. When crossed-referenced with hydroponic production area groups (Table 9), NFT is used by 50% of respondents in non-protected enterprises,mostly lettuce and herb growers. NFT is also used by a high percentage of respondents in medium and large-protected operations, but only by a small number of respondents (11%) in small-protected enterprises.

The majority of growers use environmentally responsible recirculating systems (Table 10). To reduce the number of classes of water management systems from three to two, responses to recirculating and static systems were pooled to make a new class of water management system called Zero Waste Water,which represented 71% of respondents. After cross-reference, a very high proportion of respondents with non-protected (83%) and small-protected (86%) enterprises use the zero waste water system.

Media and nutrients
Reflecting European trends, rockwool was the dominant growing media used by growers (34%), a significant increase from 15.3% that was recorded in the1992 magazine survey. In that survey, aggregate was the major growing media. Cocopeat was the second most popular media (20%). After cross-analysis with hydroponic production area groups (Table 12), the use of rockwool was generally uniform among protected crop growers,but much lower in non-protected systems (17%). Significantly, cocopeat was used by over half (56%) of respondents in large protected growing systems .Perlite and vermiculite were only used in non-protected and small-protected systems.

More than half (51.5%) of respondents make their own inorganic nutrients (Table 13), compared to 43% who use a commercial inorganic brand. After cross-analysis with production area groups,medium and large-protected enterprises use 75% and 80%,respectively,of their own inorganic nutrient mix (Table 14). It’s interesting to note that organic nutrients were used by 16.5% of respondents, mostly among hobby growers.

Trends and issues
Less than half (44%) of respondents are members of an industry association or group,and less than half (48%) have attended field days or workshops. This compares poorly with European, North American and New Zealand trends where most growers belong to an industry or grower association. The Australian trend is probably a reflection of long travelling distances and the busy on-farm lifestyle of growers, as well as the growing dominance of the Internet. When asked to indicate their sources for industry information (multiple responses were allowed), almost three-quarters (74%) of respondents source knowledge from the Internet. The next most popular sources for information were books (51%), followed by magazines (47%), and other growers (47%).

When asked to rate their concern about a range of industry, technical and business/financial issues (multiple responses allowed), respondents listed plant nutrition (98%), access to information (98%), and IPM (97.5%) as very important or important. The three issues of least importance were the licensing of hydroponic retailers (44%), agent commissions (39%), and the R&D tomato levy (31%).

Future plans
Of those respondents who are considering a commercial hydroponic venture, 44% plan to establish a commercial operation with 1-2 years, and 9% in the next 2-5 years. There was a 13% response to a commercial venture as a retirement plan option, The data indicates many of our readers are intending growers. Some 34% of respondents had no plans in the foreseeable future to establish a commercial operation. These respondents were mostly established growers and those people involved in research and education activities.

Reader profile
Nearly half (45%) of respondents took the time to write suggestions or comments, which fell into three broad categories – new sections (to include in the magazine), content of articles (specific topics), and advertising (e.g. more local content). While there were a couple of critical comments, most were full of praise with very constructive comments, which we will try to implement in future issues of the magazine. The two critical comments were: “Some of the adverts are a bit large, mainly around the articles …” and “Stories written by scientists are ‘extremely boring’ – make them more light-hearted, the odd joke thrown in …so the average grower can understand …”. I’m sure this doesn’t apply to Bill Jarvis whose articles are humourous and informative.

In summary, the survey provided an excellent profile of our readership and generated much useful information along the way. The profile of our readers is of a passionate, hard-working group of environmentally responsible people who depend on hydroponic and greenhouse technology for their livelihood and/or enjoyment. They are generally well educated (67% of respondents had tertiary qualifications), and have a realistic view of plant production in soilless and greenhouse environments. Just as our first survey revealed, our readers have a practical and inquiring nature, and are willing to put themselves out to try something new and follow-up ideas that they may have heard or read about. Provided they feel it’s justified, they are willing to spend money to achieve their aims or goals.

We are privileged to have such a quality readership, nd welcome your continuing correspondence, comments and ideas on all aspects of the hydroponics and greenhouse industry. Thank you all for donating your time to fill out the reader questionnaire.

A special thanks to Ann Harris and Idris Barchia, National Centre for Greenhouse Horticulture, NSW Agriculture, who tabulated, cross-referenced and analysed survey responses.