Posts Tagged ‘ commercial ’

Issue 101: Aquaponics Revisited

July/August – 2008
Author: Mike Nichols

The author at the Bleiswijk project.

Aquaponic systems are being increasingly recognised as having potential for solving some of the many problems facing modern agriculture and aquaculture. MIKE NICHOLS profiles two very different commercial aquaponic systems that embrace new ideas and innovations.

Nick Savidov with basil crop and fish tanks in background.

I recently stopped off for a few days in Alberta, Canada, to meet up with Dr Nick Savidov, the Greenhouse Team Leader of the Crops Diversification Research Centre, Brooks, where I was briefed about their $15 million investment in state-of-the-art research greenhouses to be built in the next 12 months. I also learnt that he has greatly improved his aquaponic project with a few minor ‘tweaks’, which now make it significantly more productive and sustainable than the model developed by Jim Rekocy (US Virgin Islands) on which the original Brooks project was based.

Deep flow system showing aeration.

Nick has made more efficient use of expensive greenhouse floor space by joining all the beds into a single ‘pond’ by doing away with all the paths and discarding the aquarium stone bubblers and replacing them with air lines of PVC tubing with small holes.

View of root system of basil plants.

In the new facility, he has improved water, space, and labour efficiency and eliminated chemicals including pesticides, fertilisers and pH adjustments. A new component has been incorporated into the system called Biofloc based on Geotube® technology, which allows him to physically separate solid waste from water. The water is then returned back to the system instead of being pumped out with solids as in the previous model. Solids are allowed to stay in the system gradually releasing nutrients due to a bio-fermentation process and thus serving as a slow-release fertiliser. He has found that the solids removed from the water using GeoTube® technology and stored in the Geotube® tank have been degrading with increasing rate releasing additional nutrients to the system. The result is nutrient use efficiency close to 100%. In other words, for the first time, he has created a recirculating self-sustainable system, which allows the conversion of practically all the organic material (fish feed) input into food (fish and plant biomass).

Basil plants and fish tanks.

Bacteria are the key to the whole system, and it is interesting to note that according to Dr Savidov in year one the aquaponics system produces only 70% of the yield of a conventional hydroponic system, but in year two yields may be as much as 30-40% higher than those obtained using conventional hydroponics. He attributes the difference to micro-organisms in the system that take a year to develop the right balance.

Aquaponics in the Netherlands
In the Netherlands I visited the Greenhouse Improvement Centre at Bleiswijk primarily to meet with Willem Kemmers (of Priva), the Project Leader of EcoFutura (Fish and Tomato Project, another name for aquaponics) and with Pim Wilhelm, the fish biologist.

Fish and tomatoes – Bleiswijk, Netherlands.

The Fish and Tomato project is most impressive, and so it should be as it is supported by some major industry players. The fish tanks are held inside the greenhouse, below the hanging troughs in which the tomatoes are grown in Grodan rockwool. I have personal difficulties with the project, however, in terms that it is not a fully re-circulating system, and also the nutrient stream from the fish is sterilised with ultraviolet light before it is used on the tomatoes, and at the same time the solution is analysed, and the pH adjusted, and other nutrients added to suit the tomatoes. Similarly, many of the organic solids are removed and dumped. The drainage is then returned to the fish tanks, but is again modified (by increasing the pH) to suit the fish.

Thus, this is not the same as the fully re-circulating and sustainable system as has been developed in Alberta.

One of the difficulties of aquaponics is providing crops such as tomatoes with the optimum conductivity (about 3.5mS) necessary to ensure a high quality tomato in the middle of the winter. The conductivity of a solution coming directly from the fish phase is normally very low, but in a deep flow system this is not important as the nutrients flow past the roots, and the leafy crops are able to absorb adequate nutrients, however with tomatoes the objective is to use conductivity to control growth and fruit quality, and this is difficult (impossible) with a deep flow system using aquaponics.

However, when using a media-based hydroponic system such as rockwool or coir, it should be possible to control the conductivity of the solution by using reverse flow osmosis, and directing the water phase back to the fish, and the high conductivity stream to the plants.

Aquaponics is taking off in Canada as a teaching tool. A number of schools have now purchased Nick’s mini aquaponic set up, which he developed as a research tool. They are using this to demonstrate to school students some of the simple principles of ecology and biology.

Aquaponics vs organics
Sadly, the mainstream organic principals still do not like aquaponics. The argument is that it is unnatural, because the plants are not grown in the soil. A very strange decision when the system is certainly the most environmentally friendly and sustainable system that currently exists, as no nutrients are leached through the soil profile, and the system is particularly water efficient. Growing organically in soil is neither water nor nutrient efficient when compared to aquaponics!

In any case, how do you define soil? Basically it is:
• solid particles (e.g. sand, clay silt)
• organic matter
• micro-organisms
• water
• gases (oxygen, CO2 etc.).

An aquaponic system comprises all of these apart from solid particles, and these could be easily added to the system! The addition of a rock or two to the deep flow system should be more than adequate.

It is interesting to note that greenhouse soil-based organic systems usually produce only about 60% of the yield of a conventional hydroponic crop. In Canada, organic certification is available for crops grown using aquaponics, provided that they are grown in a cocopeat (coir) medium!

About the author
Dr Mike Nichols is a horticultural research scientist at the College of Sciences, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand, and a regular contributor to PH&G.

Issue 96: Barrita Orchids

September/October – 2007
Author: Scott Barrie

Elevated view of the inside of the greenhouse.

Inset: Phalaenopsis.

SCOTT BARRIE gives a commercial grower’s insight into the cultivation of high quality orchids for the retail market Australia wide, including the development of new varieties.

Barrita Orchids is owned and operated by the Barrie family. Founded in1963 by Geoff and Angela Barrie, the nursery was originally established in Mt Hutton, Newcastle. Recently the nursery relocated to the Central Coast of New South Wales and is now under the management of Scott Barrie. Barrita Orchids is a commercial orchid growing business which supplies quality plants to K-Mart stores throughout New South Wales as well as flowers and plants to markets and florists Australia wide. The aim of Barrita is to produce high quality cut flowers and potted orchid plants and to develop new varieties.


There are in excess of 3,000 genera in the orchidaceous family, many of these originating from the jungles of the Americas and Asian region. Mystery and myth seem to surround these delightful beauties and stories of the orchid collectors sent by British gentry into the wilds of the South American jungles add colourfully to this mythology. Today, there are many traits which make orchids popular to collectors and the general public.

There is a long list of popular and well-known orchid varieties including Cymbidiums, Phalaenopsis, Dendrobiums (often referred to as Singapore Orchids), Cattleyas, Paphiopedilum or Slipper Orchids, Sarcochilus, Vandas and Oncidiums. Cymbidiums are grown in great numbers in Holland, and Phalaenopsis, which are one of the most graceful flowers, are one of the biggest pot plant sellers in Europe.

Cymbidium Khan Flame.

Cymbidium Toni McCartney.

Australian native Sarcochilus plants.

Orchid requirements
Orchids come in varieties which are either terrestrial or epiphytic. Epiphytic orchids, which are the focus of Barrita, require an inert media with free-draining characteristics, good air circulation and high light.

Looking across benches of orchid plants.

The Greenhouse
The Barrita greenhouse is located 320m above sea level, is north facing and positioned as to have no light impediments such as surrounding trees or buildings. It is 102m x 57m x 4m (gutter height) in size with a twin-skinned roof to give greater environmental stability. Twin roof vents give maximum air movement and ventilation and 50% shade screens allow maximum light to penetrate without allowing leaf burn.

Greenhouse operations are run by a Galcon computer with a PC interface. This program controls the timing and operation of the entire hydroponic system including all overhead watering, fertilization and pH adjustment in addition to vent and screen functions regulated by temperature, wind and light sensors.

There are two different growing areas within the greenhouse where the plants can be housed in either a heated or non-heated environment. In the heated section, tropical Phalaenopsis grow to be sold as pot plants and to supply cut flowers for use in florist bridal work. This section is also used to house deflasked plantlets. This environment receives a greater frequency of irrigation giving plants a high rate of growth, achieving maximum size in the pot in the shortest time possible.

The non-heated area, which is the bulk of the greenhouse, contains Vandas, Cymbidiums and Sarcochilus growing towards maturity and flowering. This section’s environmental control is set to achieve the lowest temperatures attainable and allow the maximum air exchange with the outside environment.

Benefits of greenhouse production
While it is not necessary to grow orchids in a greenhouse environment, there are many outstanding benefits to this system of production. As is the case in many horticultural pursuits where a crop may be grown outside or in a greenhouse, greenhouse produced orchids are of a higher quality due to the ability to limit variables such as wind damage and rain spoilage, ensuring delivery of a high quality product. Cut flower markets require the highest level of quality assurance. This is only achievable in a greenhouse.

Angela packing flowers.

There are also economic benefits to greenhouse production. Since moving to the greenhouse environment, previously high employment input has fallen due to computer system control drastically reducing the need for many manual tasks, a more worker-friendly environment and the elimination of wasted days lost to wet weather.

Finally, the complete control of conditions made possible by this type of production allows for much greater control of pests and disease. Reliance on fungicide is reduced simply by regulating the wet time of the plant and a bio-control program has been implemented to control two spotted mites All methods combine to reduce chemical input whilst ensuring optimal growth and healthy plants.

Traditionally, Australian Cymbidium orchid producers have relied heavily on cross-pollination for the bulk of their production. This method is the cheapest in regards to the cost of plantlets, however this can lead to irregularity in flower production. This may lead to another year of growth pre-flowering, and unproven keeping qualities as a cut flower giving rise to poor customer satisfaction.

Orchid flowers are renowned for longevity as a cut flower. Failure to meet this expectation damages supplier/customer relationships. For these reasons, whilst a small breeding program at Barrita exists to produce new cultivars to fill stock gaps, the majority of production is derived from clones from Barrita’s own breeding programs proven for their ease of growth and flowering.

This cloning process, which is undertaken on site, requires plants begin their lives in the Barrita laboratory. The cloning of plants produces corms which multiply into plantlets. The new plantlets are grown in sterile, tissue culture jars for up to 12 months to a height of approximately 10cm, at which point they are planted out into individual 50mm tubes and relocated to the heated greenhouse environment.

Looking across benches of orchid plants.

Although the heated environment is unnecessary for the growth of the cold-growing varieties, these new plants do require the increased water supply this area of the greenhouse receives. The plants will then continue to grow in this environment until they are ready to move onto 125mm pots. At this point the cold varieties will be transferred to the main growing area, while those requiring heat will move into another area of the heated environment.

Once in the main growing area, plants spend as much as 12 months in the 125mm pot before being transferred to a 175mm pot. Some plants will flower in this size pot in the next flowering season, although it is usual to grow the plant into the next season in a 200mm pot. This 200mm pot is the finished product, and provided the plant flowers it will be sold. All going to plan, this process has taken five years from the time the initial clone was cut to the time the plant has its first opportunity to be sold. This is why orchids generally are regarded as expensive plants and a reason why there are not many large commercial orchid producers.

Flower spikes about to open.

Cymbidium flowers ready to harvest.

The hydroponic system at Barrita
Given that the orchids grown at Barrita are epiphytic in nature, they require a specialist hydroponic system in which to grow to their maximum potential. This involves a high quality soilless growing medium, plenty of air circulation, and the right amount of water and water-based fertilizers.

The growing medium
Epiphytic orchids prefer a soilless medium with an air-filled porosity of above 45%. Traditional growers have used sand/peat mixes or bark based composts to grow in. Good quality peat has become difficult and expensive to source, and a reliable grade of bark which will not break down is just as difficult to find.

Barrita chose to turn to the stability of Growool [an Australian-made rockwool product] as a base for the growing media. A mix of Growool, styrene and perlite has been used since the early 1990s. This change away from traditional composts has proven to be a revolution in the growing system used at Barrita. The total stability and regularity of the media allows mature plants to develop into massive plants over 10 years in the same pot, a feat difficult to attain in traditional bark-based media. The revolution came in the form of a greater need to understand the nutritional requirements of the plants, and the use of leaf analysis has provided a base line from which to reference these requirements. The benefits of this mix include a readily available supply in bulk quantities, ease of handling and the recyclable nature of a totally inert media.

Media. Growool, Perlite and Styreen.

The water used in the hydroponic system is derived from two sources. Firstly, the greenhouse roof run-off water is collected and mixed with the second source which is bore water. Bore water in the area is of exceptional quality with an EC of 0.16, giving plenty of scope for the addition of nutrients. The pH of the water is quiet low at pH 3.15. While such a low pH is damaging to the long term growth of the plant, it is easily corrected using potassium hydroxide solution injected via the computer-monitored injection system.

Plants are watered and fertilized through an overhead sprinkler system, which delivers an even misting of nutrient enriched water to the plants. This process is carried out twice a week during the cooler months and increased to three times a week during the warmer seasons. The overhead sprinklers also contribute to the cooling of the greenhouse. A short burst from the sprinklers produces a mist which raises the humidity.

Air circulation
Air movement is considered to be one of the most important aspects of growing orchids and is a major concern in a greenhouse environment. There are a number of ways to increase ventilation including roll-up walls, benching plants, circulation fans and roof vents.

Roll-up sides were included in the original design of the Barrita greenhouse, however, although air circulation is increased, these roll-up sides create variation in the overall environment. In the areas immediately adjacent to the open wall, the plants dry out much faster than the ones in the centre of the house. For these reasons Barrita has found this type of ventilation to be unsuitable.

Benching plants at a height of 300mm off the ground on mesh stands allows air to circulate throughout the plants more evenly and prevents waterlogging. Circulation fans are used in the heated area as the roof is often closed while the heating process is underway. This enables air to circulate freely without loss of heat and environmental fluctuation. Twin roof vents throughout the house are monitored and controlled through the computer, based on wind speed readings. These give excellent air exchange in an even flow all over the growing area. Even on days when there is no breeze the leaves of the plants can be seen to slightly move.

As the growing medium is simply a stabilization method for the plants, no nutrition is received from the growing media. The plants nutritional needs, therefore, are met through the watering system.

Barrita utilize a four injector system delivering A, B and C nutrient solutions and a pH adjustment solution. Typically, solution A contains Calcium Nitrate and Potassium Nitrate, solution B contains Mono Potassium Phosphate, Magnesium Sulphate, Potassium Nitrate, and solution C contains trace elements and Iron Chelate.

Barrita uses variations in the Nitrogen/Potassium ratio to induce flower initiation. These changes are confirmed through leaf analysis. At the time of flower initiation, the Nitrogen level should be lower than 1.8% and rise to 2.5% during the growing phase. This process has been refined over the last 10 years.

While Barrita has an efficient system of production featuring many useful and outstanding cultivars, many years of refining lay ahead. The production of high quality cut flowers and potted orchid plants remains the focus of the nursery, whilst developing new varieties is an ongoing source of excitement and challenge.

Scott Barrie.

For further information contact:
Scott Barrie, Barrita Orchids Pty Ltd,
121 Barnes Road, Kulnura, NSW Australia.

Issue 89: Blue-Banded Bees Pass the First Hurdle

July/August – 2006
Author: Steven Carruthers

Blue Banded Bee on basil flower. Photo courtesy David Radel.

STEVEN CARRUTHERS looks at the latest published research to develop the native blue-banded bee as an alternative to bumblebees for pollinating greenhouse tomatoes. He writes that while some progress has been made, researchers are still many years away from reaching a commercial outcome.

Commercially reared bumblebees are used safely in over 30 countries to pollinate greenhouse tomato crops, but this technology is not available in Australia. Pressure from NZ imports, with recent approval for importation of Dutch tomatoes, and with Chinese imports on the horizon, means that if the industry hopes to match production standards with its international competitors, all of which use bumblebees, then access to this technology can no longer be ignored.

Following a three-year Environmental Impact Study on Tasmania’s flora and fauna, where bumblebees were inadvertently introduced in 1992, the Australian Hydroponic & Greenhouse Association (AHGA) can find no reason why bumblebees should not be allowed to be imported onto the Australian mainland to pollinate greenhouse tomato crops. Despite the gloom and doom scenario painted by a few individuals, bumblebees have had no adverse effects in the island State. Additionally, an independent CLIMEX modelling study only found limited opportunities for bumblebees to establish on the mainland should they escape to the wild. Subsequently, the AHGA applied to the Department of Environment and Heritage (DEH) to allow their import onto the Australian mainland.

In the meantime, blue-banded bee researchers have been working around the clock over the past four years to develop an economical and viable alternative to bumblebee technology. A newly published study assessing the ability of the native bluebanded bee Amegilla holmesi to buzz pollinate tomato plants does little to reassure growers that blue-banded bees are an economical and viable alternative to proven bumblebee technology. The single experiment, using only four bees, was conducted in a small greenhouse with two chambers to compare blue-banded bee pollination with mechanical pollination and with control plants with no supplementary pollination. The study, recently published in the Journal of Economic Entomology, concludes that the percentage of fruit set of bee-pollinated plants was not significantly different from the percentage fruit set of mechanically pollinated plants. So far so good. This research was conducted in 2002-03.

The experiment was conducted in two adjacent chambers in a glasshouse at the University of Western Sydney, Hawkesbury Campus, NSW, during summer from December 2002 to April 2003. The chambers measured 5.25 x 3 x 4.3m (22.58sqm) and were illuminated by ambient light. The temperature was maintained for optimum tomato production at 23°C during the day and 17°C at night.

Six nesting bricks were stacked in two columns on top of hollow, concrete Besser blocks at the end of each chamber for bees to nest. Mud collected from a site where Amegillanaturally nested was used to construct the nests in the Besser block.

Bees used in this investigation were collected from the wild as prepupae and allowed to develop in an incubator to the winged stage. When the bees were ready to hatch, two females and two males were randomly selected and placed on the nesting blocks in each chamber for emergence. The bees were observed daily and immediately replaced if mortality occurred. The study does not indicate the mortality rate or reason(s) for mortality. Because tomato flowers produce little or no nectar, the bees were provided with sucrose-water solution supplied on blue sponges.

Thirty tomato plants grown to first truss stage were placed in each chamber and arranged in four rows of seven to eight plants with a metre-wide aisle between the inner rows. Plants were randomly allocated to the three treatments – bee pollination, mechanical pollination (with a vibrating wand), and control (no supplementary pollination). As trusses developed they were pruned to four flower buds. Those receiving mechanical pollination or no supplementary pollination were bagged before the flowers opened. Pollination bags were removed as soon as the last flower was set. Trusses receiving mechanical pollination were vibrated with a commercial electric pollinator every second day between 10:00 am and 2:00pm.

Pest and diseases were controlled using methods safe for bees. Encarsia formosawere introduced every two weeks to control greenhouse whitefly (Trialeurodes vaporariorum), and plants were sprayed with 1% petroleum oil every two to three weeks to control aphids and powdery mildew.

Tomatoes were harvested when the fruit were orange-red and considered mature, then weighed using an electronic scale, and their maximum and minimum diameters measured with digital vernier callipers. Seeds from individual fruit were separated from fruit pulp, air-dried then counted. Only fruit grown on trusses 2-6 were used to determine the pollination efficacy.

The study reports both blue-banded bee and mechanical pollination treatments significantly influenced all the parameters assessed – fruit set, weight, roundness and number of seeds – but they did not differ significantly from each other (Table 1). The pollination treatments resulted in 94% fruit set, which was significantly greater than the 82% fruit set for the control treatment, but reported erroneously as notsignificantly different. The fruit was also heavier and had larger min/max diameters than those produced from flowers in the control treatment. Flowers pollinated by bees and mechanical vibrator also produced fruit that was significantly rounder and seedier than those fruits produced with no supplementary pollination.

The study concludes that these results are similar to those reported for bumblebee pollination (Banda and Paxton 1991, Ravestijn and van der Sande 1991, Pressman et al. 1999), and for stingless bee pollination (Cauich et al. 2004).

When interpreting the results of the study, it should be remembered that this is a single experiment conducted in a small greenhouse with two chambers of 22.58sqm using only four bees.

There were 30 plants at first truss stage placed in each chamber, with 10 plants per treatment in each. They were grown through to 6 trusses. The treatments were (i) two female and two male blue-banded bees per chamber, (ii) manual pollination and (iii) self-pollination. Trusses were bagged for the two last treatments so the bees only had access to 10 plants with flower trusses in each chamber.

Trusses were pruned to four flower buds, so the total number of flowers per chamber available to blue-banded bees is 240 flowers (6 x 4 x 10) over a period of 3-5 months (actual dates are not given, only December 2002 – April 2003). If we take a minimum of 90 days, this is 2.7 flowers/day available for two female blue-banded bees, or 1.35 flowers per day per bee (only female bees collect pollen; two males were included with the two females in each chamber to ensure that they were fertilised and therefore collecting pollen). As the only source of food other than artificial nectar, one might guess that this would not only be inadequate for brood production, but is a very high stocking rate per flower: perhaps a starvation diet.

The researchers report only 2-6 trusses were used in the analysis. There are vague comments in the discussion section about bees initially only collecting nectar for brood cell construction, which suggests that the first truss was not adequately pollinated. Why was the first truss omitted from the analysis?

Data for each plant for trusses 2-6 was combined before the treatment analysis, thus obscuring any difference relating to truss position. These differences could be quite informative.

Some bees died and were replaced, but the researchers do not elaborate on their mortality; only that the majority of female bees survived for the duration. There is no mention of brood production and new bees, so presumably we are only dealing with four bees in total?

It’s also worth noting that the bees were confined to an area of 22.58sqm per chamber, so they had very limited distance to travel to find flowers.

There are several reporting errors in Table 1. Percentage fruit set is given as 13.7% for both mechanical and blue-banded bee pollination. Presumably, this should be 93.7%. There are also conflicting claims that there is or is not a significant difference from the control treatment.

The researchers calculate from Morandin et al.’s Canadian data that one bumblebee can pollinate 11-24sqm of greenhouse tomatoes, and they compare this with one blue-banded bee able to pollinate 7.9sqm. An enigma is how they arrived at this calculation from a 22.58sqm chamber. The study ignores the fact that there were only 1.35 flowers/7.9sqm/day = 0.17 flowers/sqm/day per blue-banded bee available. In a commercial situation, bumblebees pollinate 5-7 flowers/sqm/day (D. Griffiths, pers. comm.). Also, we should not forget the substantial differences in travelling distance.

Clearly, this study needs to be replicated on a much larger scale to be credible. The only claim that can be made is that in a small-scale experiment, blue-banded bees were able to pollinate greenhouse tomatoes and achieve comparable fruit set to manual pollination every two days. While some progress has been made, researchers are still many years away from reaching a commercial outcome.

Some facts about bumblebee stocking rates
The number of hives needed at any one time will vary with crop type (cherry tomatoes have more flowers than beefsteak), the season (more needed in summer), crop density, greenhouse covering material (bees work best under high UV light), greenhouse size, Bombus species and sub-species etc. For Bombus terrestris, it is generally recommended that about 5-15 colonies, each with 50-60 worker bees and one queen, are employed initially per hectare, with a colony life of 8-10 weeks. On average, this is one bee per 20sqm, but some bees are tending the nest so only a percentage of workers are actually foraging in the crop.

In Ontario, for Bombus impatiens, it has been calculated that 2000 bee trips/ha/day give sufficient pollination of tomatoes (Morandin et al. 2001). Under high UV light, which was optimal, there were 4.8 trips per bee per day.

The stocking rate of one bee per 20m2 contrasts with claims that a worker bumblebee can pollinate at least 500 tomato plants or 250sqm per day (van Ravestijn and van der Sande, 1991), but might be so if only some of the bees are collecting pollen.

Bell, M.C., Spooner-Hart, R.N. & Haigh, A.M.
Pollination of greenhouse tomatoes by the Australian Bluebanded bee Amegilla (Zonamegilla) holmesi (Hymenoptera: Apidae).
Journal of Economic Entomology99: 437-442.

Morandin, L.A., Laverty, T.M. and Kevan, P.G.
2001 Bumblebee (Hymenoptera: Apidae) activity and pollination levels in commercial greenhouses.
Journal of Economic Entomology94: 462-467.

About the author
Steven Carruthers is the Managing Editor of Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses magazine and Vice-President of the Australian Hydroponic & Greenhouse Association. Email:

Issue 73: Retail Industry Reforms

November/December – 2003
Author: Christine Paul

The hydroponic retail industry has played an important role in the industry’s development, a wellspring for many of today’s commercial growers, and a supply network for many home gardeners who want to grow their own pesticide-free vegetables using water-efficient and environmentally friendly technologies. However, hydroponic retailers need to change some of their business practices if they are to play an ongoing role in the future development of this economically important industry.

Hydroponic retailers need to change their language succeed in attracting genuine home gardeners. This and some of their business practices if they are to was the message delivered by Australian Hydroponic & Greenhouse Association (AHGA) Vice President and Managing Editor of PH&G, Steven Carruthers, at the recent hydroponic retail workshops held in Adelaide and Perth. The workshops, the first in a nationwide series, were sponsored by the AHGA, which plans to introduce a National Code of Conduct and a Retail Industry Development Plan for hydroponic retail members.

The need for change
In the first part of his workshop presentation, Mr Carruthers traced the evolving face of the hydroponic retail industry in Australia. He said that in just over a decade, the market had grown from a handful of outlets to more than 400 specialist stores Australia-wide at its peak in the late 1990’s.

“In the early days, store owners focused on the home garden market, but as the retail industry grew, it became obvious it was also attracting a large cannabis-growing market,” said Mr Carruthers. “To a large extent, early SA and ACT legislation decriminalising cannabis for personal use, and rapidly evolving hydroponics technology worldwide, contributed to the explosion of stores, ” he added.

Today, Mr Carruthers estimates there are less than 200 specialist hydroponic stores Australia-wide with combined sales of around $120 million per annum at the retail counter. He attributes this market down-sizing to bad retail management practices and a changing legislative environment. “Hydroponic retailers are shop fronts to the industry, and they need to change their language and some of their business practices if they want to attract genuine home gardeners,” he said.

Mr Carruthers added that new legislation in SA, which makes it a serious offence to grow cannabis plants hydroponically, and WA where it will soon become an offence to ‘knowingly’ sell equipment that will be used to grow cannabis, is a serious wake-up call for all hydroponic retailers to change their business practices if they want to avoid further restrictive legislation.

“For the retail industry to grow and prosper, it needs to dissociate from its cannabis culture and promote its products and services to genuine home gardeners,” he said. “Changing the public’s perception of the hydroponic retail market won’t happen overnight, but the first step forward is through industry self-regulation,” he added.

Retail Industry Code of Conduct
Referring to key points in the SA Proposal to License Hydroponic Equipment Retailers (Report of the Review Panel: Executive Summary and Recommendations – January 2002), and the minutes of the Legislative Council of Western Australia Hansard (10/09/03), Mr Carruthers said both documents make it clear legislators in SA and WA want the hydroponic retail industry to work within a Code of Conduct.

“It’s something governments throughout Australia want to see – that is, industries developing Codes of Practice that minimise government regulations and administration costs,” said Mr Carruthers. “Not to develop a Code of Conduct in the hydroponic retail industry is to invite further legislation and business restrictions that could ultimately spell the demise of the hydroponic retail sector in this country,” he said.

The first item in the Code of Conduct proposed by the AHGA requires hydroponic retailers to undertake appropriate training and certification in the correct use, handling and storage of all chemical products, including pesticides and herbicides. Mr Carruthers warned retailers that the industry anticipates tightening of Federal and State legislation on the sale, handling and storage of agricultural chemicals that can be used to make explosives or for acts of bioterrorism, as well as compromise homegrown food safety and the environment.

“In the near future, we are likely to see new legislation that requires a permit and user identification to buy and sell agricultural chemicals, and industry members from growers to retailers will need to be certified in their safe handling and storage;not only because of terrorist threats, but also because of Occupational, Health and Safety issues,” said Mr Carruthers.

Mr Robin Moseby from Soladome Hydroponics was one of several retailers who welcomed the idea of training and certification in farm chemical safety. Currently, Mr Moseby is working on a suitable pathway for retailer training, which will be tied to units of competency under the National Training Scheme. He is planning a half-day course, which all retail staff are encouraged to attend, and which will offer a brief outline of farm chemical safety for a nominal cost. This will be followed by a full-day course, which all retail staff are encouraged to attend, but mandatory for supervisory staff, store managers, and store owners. This will complete the minimum certification required at a cost of around $250 per person. Mr Moseby suggested that the AHGA could provide valuable input to existing materials for further courses that can count towards a suitable diploma in hydroponic/horticultural management. It is envisaged that once a National course has been developed, it could be delivered to retailers in other States by other Registered Training Organisations under a licence arrangement for the use of the materials developed.

Legislative issues
In relation to items in the proposed Code of Conduct which prohibit products linked to cannabis cultivation being sold or advertised by member retailers, Mr Carruthers pointed to comments made by Mr Simon O’Brien (Lib) in the WA Parliament, which highlight bad practices in the industry. After viewing a retail product catalogue called The Growers Bible, the Shadow Minister for DrugStrategy said it refers to undetectable growing systems.

“Why would people need an undetectable growing system made to look like a refrigerator?” he questioned. “The catalogue is quite hilarious, ” he added, “in some ways because of the way its authors try to make it absolutely clear that they are appealing to cannabis growers, while at the same time desperately trying to disguise the fact. It is a curious contradiction, ” he said.

Mr Carruthers said the main threat to the SA and WA hydroponic retail industry is further restrictive legislation. He pointed to remarks made by Mr O’Brien in the WA Parliament about retail ‘cowboys’ who have no place in the industry, and deserve no consideration. “If the WA Liberals win government at the next State election, watch out for changes he initiates if nothing has changed,” warned Mr Carruthers.

“WA Labor may wait like the South Australian Government, but eventually more action will be taken in both States if hydroponic retailers do not take urgent action to reform their business practices, and dissociate from the cannabis culture.”

Retail Industry Development Plan
The second part of the workshop focused on common areas where a national network of hydroponic retail outlets could benefit the industry, home gardeners and the community, at the same time helping to turn around the public’s perception of the retail industry. Mr Carruthers told retailers that few organi-sations can succeed without a plan, and he recommended that retailers develop a Retail Industry Development Plan to take the industry into the future.

“A Retail Industry Development Plan could look at the concept of an annual ‘National Garden Safe Day’, for example, where a national network of hydroponic stores become collection points for garden chemicals, including unused pesticides, insecticides, and other out-of-date garden products.” Mr Carruthers said that many home gardeners are water wasters and major contributors to groundwater contamination in urban environments.

“One day they will pass a law banning lawns that are an unnecessary waste of water in this country,” he said. “It’s all very well pointing the finger at commercial growers polluting the groundwater as a consequence of fertiliser run-off;what about the tonnes of fertilisers and pesticides used on gardens in urban Australia, ” he added. “Hydroponic retailers can play an important role to educate the gardening public about water conservation strategies and safe gardening practices that don’t pollute the environment,” he said.

Mr Carruthers pointed to other issues where hydroponic retailers could take a leading role, such as collecting HID lamps which contain sodium and mercury, and plastic containers used to bottle nutrient products. He forecast that the day is rapidly approaching where manufacturers, retailers and consumers will need to pay an environmental levy to dispose of their waste packaging.

Mr Carruthers said that such industry initiatives are not difficult to plan and implement. Water conservation, groundwater contamination and pesticide use are issues that resonate with home gardeners and consumers more than ever. “Hydroponic retailers can play an important role to draw attention to these environmental issues, which are opportunities to turn around the public’s perception of the hydroponic retail industry,” he said

During the Adelaide and Perth workshops, and the rest of the planned workshops in capital cities around Australia, the message is loud and clear – it’s time for hydroponic retailers to re-evaluate some of their business practices and present a clean image of their industry.

“There is a large number of hydroponic retailers who supply a genuine home garden market, and I’m optimistic that these retailers will carry the industry forward to play an important role in the future development of urban agriculture using water-efficient and environmentally friendly growing technologies, ” said Mr Carruthers.

At the conclusion of the workshop, retailers were encouraged to adopt the proposed AHGA Code of Conduct, and to convey this and a Retail Industry Development Plan to their Parliamentarians at the earliest possible opportunity to demonstrate they are serious about reforming their industry.  Ω

PH&G November/December 2003 / Issue 73