Posts Tagged ‘ glasshouse ’

Murphy Fresh A Glass Act

From enough to “live on” to “a really good expansion”. Small growers can turn a profit alongside corporate growers and larger enterprises. Murphy Fresh, in the Victorian High Country, points the way for other small growers to build a successful commercial greenhouse business.

Svensson: The Fifth Season: Screens that control temperature and humidity.

Svensson, the fifth season. a technology review. The growth and development of plants using aluminium screens.

Issue 106: Passionate Producer of Culinary Herbs

May/June 2009
Author: Steven Carruthers

In the face of domestic and global financial uncertainty, one Australian producer of fresh culinary herbs is thriving, expanding its operations to supply an increasingly demanding market.

Cooling the microclimate in the late afternoon.

Freshzest Pty Ltd has reached a new milestone with the construction of a 1ha glasshouse at Caniaba, near Lismore, in northern NSW. While the company has supplied the Melbourne market generally and Woolworths with fresh culinary herbs in Victoria and Tasmania for the past 20 years from its greenhouses located in South Gippsland, the new glasshouse expands the business with the delivery of high quality fresh herbs during Victoria’s winter season, as well as to the Brisbane market.

Freshzest founder Robert Hayes.

The seed for the Freshzest business was planted in the late 1970s when the newly created European Community blocked Australian dairy products. Among the casualties was the Hayes dairy farm on Mornington Peninsula, south of Melbourne. Only son Robert Hayes took over the business in 1976 and immediately set about finding an alternative living for the farm. At first he experimented with organics and biodynamics to grow herbs for the ‘dried’ market as an import replacement, but the farm soon switched to fresh culinary herbs for the retail market. Starting with a crop of basil, in his first week Rob took orders for 400 bunches at 50 cents, the second week he came back with orders for 1,000 bunches at 75 cents, and in the third and subsequent weeks 1,500 bunches at $1. Eight weeks later he walked into the bank and paid out the dairy farm overdraft, then promptly switched banks.

The new 1ha glasshouse in northern NSW expands the Freshzest business.

“They had not treated us well even though the family had been with the bank for over 50 years,” recalls Rob.

In the early 80s he read about hydroponics and the Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) developed in the UK by Dr Allan Cooper. By 1982 Rob had started his own R&D in hydroponics, building a small greenhouse in South Gippsland near Leongatha, the site of the current Freshzest operation, experimenting with NFT, flood and drain and sand-bed systems while maintaining a consultancy business in Melbourne. Invariably, when he returned to the farm after long absences he found the NFT crop dead, the flood and drain system either sick or dead, but nearly always the sand-bed crop was alive and healthy.

Growing beds include sand and perlite media.

“The simplicity and the buffer that the sand mass provides meant a crop could ride it out in the event of a power failure,” noted Rob.

Robert Hayes confers with the horticulturist.

Today, the business is no longer just one man’s experimental passion but involves an expanding team of managers, horticulturists, supervisors, administrators, growers, harvesters, packers and sub-contractors. With an integrated Quality Management System (incorporating Quality, HACCP, OH&S and other systems) in place, the company uses every means available to ensure its product range is on retailers’ shelves in less than 48 hours after picking, to established premium standards, freshness, maximum shelf-life and piquancy. Although still a relatively young man, Rob has stepped back from the business to spend more time with his family, but he can’t stop himself from having a hands-on role, helping to tweak the new state-of-the-art glasshouse facility.

Location, location, location
With the rising cost of energy, the main issue for the Victorian operation in recent years has been the high cost of LP gas heating during winter-time production.

“It’s a very expensive business these days given what’s happened with the price of oil,” said Rob. “It was clear a couple of years ago that we needed to establish a northern growing operation for the winter-time period,” he said.

From a carbon footprint perspective it made sense for Freshzest to establish a growing facility in a warmer climate. According to Rob, preliminary anaylsis of the carbon inputs for Freshzest’s two sites, producing herbs in a warm climate reduces the carbon footprint by approximately 80% compared to the Victorian operation, even after the product is shipped to Melbourne.

The key criterion for location was sufficient sunlight to grow optimally through the coolers months of the year, between April and September. The secondary consideration was climate over the rest of the year. This led Rob to analyse solar radiation data, which pointed to several suitable sites in the Northern Rivers region of NSW.

“There were a number of boxes we wanted to tick off on,” said Rob. “Elevation to avoid floods and a good quality water supply were obvious requisites. Sunshine hours and climatic factors were big ones. After pressing the go button it took 18 months to find a suitable property.”

A perfect climate for lemon grass production.

Nestled in a cluster of hills between two mountain valleys, the 18ha Caniaba property includes a large catchment dam, which is also fed by an underwater spring. Two hectares have been approved for glasshouse development, giving Freshzest the option to double its northern production. Previously a macadamia plantation, most of the trees have been cleared in preparation to planting kaffir lime, curry leaf and some larger crops like lemon grass and rosemary to increase the range and volume of fresh culinary herbs. Once established, this in-field production will also assist with general maintenance around the glasshouse, and managing the immediate environment outside the glasshouse.

The glasshouse
The glasshouse is a Faber design similar to the Dutch Venlo-style glasshouse with 8-metre spans, 4.5 metres between the posts or bays, 5 metres to the gutter, and 20% floor to roof area ventilation. For simplicity, Freshzest opted for a laser-guided gravel floor with a 1:300mm fall every 100 metres from one end of the glasshouse to the other.

Shade screens and circulation fans play an important role in climate control.

The internal glasshouse fittings include LS Climate Control aluminium screens, circulation fans, overhead fogging system, and infra-red camera to measure plant temperature. When fully operational, the Caniaba glasshouse will follow European trends and monitor plant temperature to control the internal microclimate.

Plant temperature is monitored by infra-red technology.

“Plant temperature is what we need to focus on,” said Rob. “It’s like taking body temperature when you’re feeling crook.”

Rob Hayes tweaking the Priva climate control system.

An external weather station at roof height measures wind strength and direction, humidity and outside temperature. This data feeds into a Priva climate control system to maintain an optimum internal temperature between 22 and 24˚C.

CO2 levels are monitored day and night.

The vents do not include thrips screens, but Rob wouldn’t have it any other way. While the crop is open to flying pests, the open vents also bring beneficial insects that minimise pest infestations.

“The Northern Rivers region is ‘bug central’. There are more insects per m2 than anywhere else I have experienced,” said Rob. “Any hope of maintaining a bug-free growing environment in this climate is futile,” he added.

IPM scout Karen Morse spreads Monty, a beneficial predator mite.

Since commencing growing operations, the IPM team have discovered a new native beneficial insect that predates on Western Flower Thrips (WFT), an exciting find for Australia where there are few beneficial insects available to growers compared to their counterparts in Europe and North America. WFT is responsible for billions of dollars in crop losses worldwide each year with no effective control in sight. The discovery and promise of the Orrius beetle, and the effectiveness of the IPM program at Caniaba Farm, will be discussed in more detail in our next issue by consulting entomologists Stephen Goodwin and Marilyn Steiner.

Although the region has experienced hailstorms, the new glasshouse is located in a rain shadow, a local weather phenomenon that also minimises cloud cover and increases sunshine hours. In the event of hail, experience has already shown that the 4mm toughened glass will withstand golf balls, but maybe not cricket balls. The new facility is insured by Agricola Crop Insurance for both the glasshouse structure and crop, including lost wages and clean-up costs.

“I couldn’t sleep without it,” says Rob. “Although it comes at a high cost, insurance is essential risk management.”

According to Rob the limiting factor of the glasshouse is the high temperatures in summer.

“We’ve just gone through our first summer and it’s not too bad from a vegetative production perspective,” says Rob. “The problem is more to do with the human population working inside the glasshouse where the climate is hot and humid. Having said that, we have been able to keep the temperature a couple of degrees below ambient using screens, fogging and ventilation,” he added.

Although the glasshouse has been in production for nine months, Rob is still tweaking the climate control system with room to lower summer-time internal temperatures even further.

The glasshouse has created 23 new job opportunities in the region.

The Caniaba Farm has created new job opportunities for locals in the region. The workforce includes a farm manager, senior horticulturist, horticulturist, IPM scout, site foreman, admin and logistics officer, maintenance officer, and 17 staff involved in harvesting and processing.

The growing system
The growing system consists of waist-height benches filled with a proprietary blend of different grade sand. Poly sheets between the sand bed and metal benches prevent corrosion. Each bench is approx. 7 metres in length and 1.5 metres wide. With enough room for workers to go about their tasks, the island nature of the sand beds plays an important role in the IPM program to restrict the movement of non-flying pests.

A typical growing bed in full production.

Freshzest cultivate 15 different herbs for the retail market including this healthy bed of chives.

The irrigation system consists of a series of white poly tubes running in parallel down the length of each sand bed. The built-in turbo flow emitters give an even balance of moisture throughout the sand bed. Runoff solution is collected at the low end of each bench and returned to external recirculation tanks. There are six recirculation storage tanks sited near the dam with a combined capacity of 120,000 litres.

End-to-end sand beds share a single return drain to the recirculating tanks.

The facility has the option to run two nutrient regimes based on crop and R&D requirements. Irrigation cycles are triggered by solar accumulation sensors with max/min cycle times automatically calculated around that. Returning solution is blended with fresh water and fresh feed designed to replace that which has been taken out of solution by plants.

Since growing operations commenced there has been no solution discharge from the recirculation system. Eventually, discharge water will be used on the field crops. To date the only disease problems experienced have been phytophera and alternaria fungus in sage.

“Typical of these things, it’s nothing except that we gave it the wrong conditions by overwatering. We’re now running the sage beds drier and it’s as happy as Larry,” said Rob.

Bunches of herbs are collected by trolley for the washing and packaging operation.

He added that the dam water is very clean with only about 16ppm of sodium and a little bit of iron. Make-up water is pumped from the dam into tanks and chlorinated. Sanitised water is then distributed into storage tanks that supply both fertigation systems, and for general use in the pack house. Roof water is also captured and routed to storage tanks, with two 22,000L dedicated tanks supplying filtered and UV treated water for drinking and kitchen use.

Water storage and recirculation tanks are sited near the catchment dam.

Washing and packaging station after the day’s work.

Final remarks
Freshzest is a passionate producer of culinary herbs where quality, freshness and piquancy are everything. During my visit to the Caniaba Farm in early autumn the new glasshouse was in full production and running smoothly. In these uncertain economic times, if there was any nervousness about the company’s multi-million dollar investment, or the future, it wasn’t in evidence here.

“I’m glad I’m in the real economy,” laments Rob. “We employ people, we grow quality food, and I think there will always be a market for our products. It has its ups and downs, but at this stage I’m optimistic the Australian economy won’t go into freefall like other economies.”

Marketing Manager Jen Westphal is responsible for developing new markets.

According to Rob the global economic downturn has changed eating habits. While the average consumer has gone slightly down market, herbs are still on the weekly shopping list.

“People who were eating out in restaurants a couple of times a week are now going home with a nice cut of meat and fresh herbs to cook up,” says Rob. “They are discovering the joys of cooking again.”

So what is the future for the herb industry?
“The Australian population has gone from Anglo food styles such as bangers and mash to a far more cosmopolitan home cooking style,” says Rob. “That started in the late 80s, accelerated during the 90s, and has continued through the noughties. There are still huge opportunities to grow the herb market,” concludes Rob.

About Faber Glasshouses
New Zealand’s leading glasshouse manufacturer, Faber Glasshouses Ltd, continues to deliver a host of innovations for the benefit of their customers throughout Australasia. Some of the recent innovations include: aluminium gutters, toughened glass roofs, low-iron glass, solid concrete bases, and energy-saving screens. They also have a ground-breaking new nursery glasshouse in development.

Faber produces glass and plastic-clad greenhouses from their sophisticated manufacturing plant in Waiuku, Franklin. The company invests heavily in technology – including robotics and CNC-machining – to achieve consistently high standards for their local and export clients.

Faber’s general manager, Peter Holwerda, says the company’s modular design provides growers with huge flexibility in terms of their ‘limitless’ size options. Faber glasshouses can range from a relatively modest 250m2 up to an impressive 8ha under one roof, which is their largest example to date.

“We have moved towards modular design to give growers greater scalability in their operations,” explains Peter.

“We are seeing a trend towards larger houses – and the economies of scale can be very favourable. It’s often cost-effective for growers to increase the size of their area, given the relatively small increase required in staffing, irrigation and energy needs.”

Peter says all Faber glasshouses are manufactured with the same high-spec features, regardless of size.

“Every glasshouse, with post heights from 3m up to 6m, has the same engineering behind it – so it’s super-strong. Our glasshouses support all types of crops and crop growing systems.”

Faber now provide the latest design in aluminium guttering – that takes up less glasshouse surface area for better light transmission, and requires fewer internal downpipes. They also offer toughened glass for the roof (which shatters in tiny pieces instead of dangerous large shards) for greater safety. For additional stability and permanence, a solid concrete plinth under all external walls has replaced the previous fibrolite panels.

Other Faber innovations include low-iron glass, ideal for winter growing; and shade and energy-saving screens for heat conservation of up to 50%. Another major innovation is Faber’s new nursery design, which is currently in development. Believed to be the first of its type in Australasia, the glasshouse features a glass roof that can be opened 100%.

“This is available in Europe but not in New Zealand or Australia,” says Peter.

“The roof is totally controllable – it can be opened to harden off small plants, and closed to protect them. Because the plants don’t need to be moved in and out of the glasshouse, it offers far less handling along with greater security and protection.”

There has already been interest from local growers in the new nursery design, and Faber reports more details will be released later in the year.

For further information contact:
Faber Glasshouses (Australia) Pty Ltd,
PO Box 290, Lilydale, Vic 3140
Faber Glasshouses (NZ) Ltd,
PO Box 36, Waiuku, NZ
Freecall Australia: 1800 132 237
Freecall NZ: 0800 100 618
Website:  Ω

PH&G May/June 2009 / Issue 106

Issue 94: Field Vs Glasshouse Tomatoes

May/June – 2007
Author: Graeme Smith

GRAEME SMITH compares production statistics for field-grown and glasshouse tomato production.

In response to a detailed article published in Good Fruit & Vegetables (January 2007) on growing field tomatoes in the Goulburn Valley, Victoria, for the fresh table market, the Australian Hydroponic & Greenhouse Association (AHGA) has made a direct comparison with tomato production in a modern glasshouse situated only a few kilometres away, therefore experiencing exactly the same climatic conditions.

The following actual production figures of both field and glasshouse are from the last growing season and are converted to a 1 hectare rate (10,000sqm) so that direct comparisons can be made.

As can be seen by these actual production figures, modern glasshouses using closed and controlled production systems are truly the modern face of horticulture and deliver far superior results in terms of quantity, quality, water use and market returns.

When reviewing the production figures, it appears on the surface that greenhouse production uses more water than field production, however it’s worth noting greenhouse production occurs over 111/2 months compared to 7 months for field production. The conservative greenhouse production figures also include all water used, not just that put on crops (i.e. fogging, roof sprinklers, hand washing, staff facilities, etc.). The important point is the conversion rate of water used to tomatoes produced, and it shows greenhouse production clearly in front (500%+).

The 500+% water efficiencies alone (grams fruit per litre of water) should encourage all tiers of government to invest in greenhouse R&D to better utilize our ever dwindling water resources for a vast range of greenhouse crops.

These figures clearly show why leading supermarket chains have signalled to industry their intention to increase greenhouse tomato sales from the current estimated 17% (of fresh table market), to 50% over the next 5 – 8 years. This is a tripling of one sector of the greenhouse industry alone!

Industry expects that the same growth pattern will occur for other greenhouse crops like capsicum, eggplant, cucumber, lettuce, Asian vegetables, strawberries, etc.

There are many reasons why growers should look to protected cropping as outlined here, but other compelling reasons include the following:
– Closed systems can deliver near zero waste water all year round.
– Smaller footprints, therefore less impact on the natural environment.
– Marginal land is not an issue.
– Grow foreign plants in local climates.
– Controlled environment allows better use of IPM and beneficial insects with much reduced sprays.
– Higher Brix (sugar) levels deliver sweeter flavoursome fruit and longer shelf life.
– Year-round supply of consistent quality and quantity to meet consumers needs.
– Environmentally sound and responsible growing system.
– No weeds, no weeding, no herbicides!
– Higher production per hectare (1ha glasshouse produces the same as 9.4ha field).
– Higher returns for farmers’ efforts.

All Australian growers should aim to grow important consumer products in the most productive, efficient and environmentally responsible way and protected cropping systems clearly shine as the best option for a range of common consumer crops.

Forward thinking countries around the globe recognize and indeed utilize these technologies to great effect. Australian growers and politicians need to think beyond the square of traditional broad-acre farming and embrace this modern and efficient face of horticulture.

All farmers are encouraged to attend the 2007 biennial national AHGA conference in Launceston (24 -27 June – workshops, trade expo, farm visits) to discover how you too can enter this exciting and innovative industry.

About the author
Graeme Smith (CPAg) is the co-principal of Hydroponic Designs Pty Ltd, a Victorian-based national and international industry consultancy company, and President of the Australian Hydroponic & Greenhouse Association. Email:

Issue 81: Weathering the Tomato Season

March/April – 2005
Author: Steven Carruthers

Recent glasshouse expansions, combined with the arrival of imported tomatoes from New Zealand, has seen the market dynamics change for premium-grade hydroponic tomatoes in Australia. STEVEN CARRUTHERS reports small growers are struggling to stay profitable, and need to grow smarter if they want to stay in the fresh tomato business.

With new state-of-the-art greenhouse facilities either recently constructed, under construction or nearly approved, the industry’s spectacular growth is changing the market dynamics for hydroponic tomatoes. As large greenhouse growers continue to expand to supply premium-grade tomatoes year-round, smaller growers are starting to feel the squeeze. From the beginning of summer, piles of high quality tomato varieties fill the markets, and prices plummet. Grower returns barely meet the cost of production, and in many cases they make a loss. Growers stay in business only because what they lose during the tomato season, they pick up in the off-season when prices are higher. By amortising their returns over the year, small growers are generally profitable. However, with at least another 6 hectares of glasshouse tomatoes due to come online in 2005, many small growers fear their slim profits will disappear.

The Australian tomato market can be divided into two segments – processed tomatoes and fresh tomatoes.

Processed tomato markets
Processed tomatoes are grown in the field. During the 2004 growing season, Australian growers produced 320,000 tonnes of tomatoes for the processing industry, an industry valued at $44.1 million at the farm gate (A$138 per metric tonne). According to the World Information Centre for the Processing Tomato Industry, the intensive use of drip irrigation in Australia (60% of growing area) considerably improved crop production by 23% compared to the previous season.

Australian processors are counting on an 11% increase in production to 357,000 tonnes during 2005 in order to satisfy domestic demand for processed tomato products.

Processed tomatoes were used to make a variety of products:sauces (50%), peeled canned tomatoes (15%), canned baked beans and spaghettis (10%), tomato paste/puree (10%), dried and semi-dry tomatoes (8%), soups (5%), and juice (2%).

Eleven growers (four major and seven small growers) and four processors share the processing industry- Cedenco (paste), SPC-Ardmona (canned products), Heinz (sauce, ketchup and paste), and Unilever (sauces and soups).

Fresh tomato markets
Nobody really knows how large the fresh tomato market is, although industry leaders agree hydroponic tomatoes grown in greenhouses represents a small part of the total fresh market.

Mike Nichol,National Marketing Manager for Flavorite Tomatoes, estimates Australian growers produced between 220,000 and 260,000 metric tonnes for the fresh market during 2004.

“We think hydroponic tomatoes would be around 10% of the total fresh market,” he said.

Hydroponic tomatoes grown in greenhouses represent the high-end of the fresh tomato market.The main products are high quality truss and large,single tomatoes.

In 2004,four major grower/agents shared the top end of the market – Flavorite Tomatoes, KOS Tomatoes (the Costa Group), Freshpak Victoria (also branded as Testarossa), and Moraitis Fresh. Around these grower/agents are networks of smaller growers, usually family-owned and run greenhouses under 10,000sqm. By representing smaller growers, the major grower/agents are able to build critical mass to supply large markets including supermarkets.

For example, Flavorite Tomatoes currently grow 160,000 plants,and represent a network of smaller growers who grow another 300,000 plants. Collectively, Flavorite sells an average of 200 tonnes of high quality, fresh tomatoes, per week or around 10,400 tonnes per annum.

To a large extent, recent industry expansion is being driven by the major grower/agents as they form strategic alliances to consistently supply premium-grade tomatoes to markets in the eastern states,all-year-round.

Unlike the processed tomato sector and many other fresh commodity groups,the fresh tomato industry does not impose a levy on growers to help promote and market the industry or undertake R&D projects to improve production. This may change as the AHGA works with Horticulture Australia and AUSVEG to introduce a levy for the fresh tomato sector.

Weatherwise, 2004 was a good growing season for greenhouse tomatoes with larger than expected crops. However, when summer approaches ,there is a mindset – salads – and prices plummet. Historically,the tomato season begins soon after Melbourne Cup weekend in early November.

In the southern states, most growers plant in July-August with production up and running in late October-November. Most grow the same commodity, a size 18 or 20 tomato that is popular with consumers and offers the best return to growers. However,by the beginning of December there is a market glut for high quality truss and single tomatoes and grower returns are significantly reduced.

“Prices generally don’t come back until just before Christmas, or just after,depending on the supply and demand,” said Victorian grower, Sue Korevaar, who is also President of the Hydroponic Farmers Federation, a network of small growers that combine their resources to promote their high quality hydroponic tomatoes.

However, recent greenhouse expansions in the eastern states,combined with the recent arrival of imported tomatoes from New Zealand, has seen the market dynamics change dramatically for premium-grade tomatoes with many small growers struggling to stay profitable. Sue Korevaar believes small growers will survive, but they have to grow smarter.

“When I started 10 years ago, there were a lot of grumblings by established growers that newer, more up-to-date growers would destroy the marketplace and erode their prices .It didn’t happen!

“What did happen was the consumer started seeing hydroponic tomatoes in their local markets on a regular basis, and they have learned about the benefits of hydroponic produce. They liked what they were eating,” she said.

According to Sue,market share grew from 3% to 4% of the table tomato pie, to what she believes is around 16% today.The actual size of the hydroponic tomato market probably lays somewhere between 10% and 16% of total fresh tomato production.

During 2004, high quality, large single hydroponic tomatoes grown in greenhouses sold on the Sydney wholesale market floor between $6 (high season) and $15 (low season) per tray. Each tray weighs between 2.2kg and 3.4kg. Over-ripe trays sold for around $5/tray. The wholesaler/agent collects between 10-12% commission on the floor price. At the height of the fresh tomato season, consumers paid around $4/kg for large single tomatoes.

Between Christmas 2004 and the New Year, prices rose to $9-$10/kg for truss tomatoes, but by early January 2005 they had dropped back down to $7-$8 for a 3 to 3.4kg tray, where they languished through to February.

There are many reasons why prices dropped on the Sydney market floor during the 2004-2005 tomato season. Many small growers in the Sydney Basin switched from growing Lebanese cucumbers, which produced a poor return the year before, to tomatoes. It is likely some growers will switch back to cucumbers in the 2005-2006 growing season because of the low returns they received from this season’s tomato crop.

Although the mild weather conditions produced higher yields, it also brought with it low consumer demand. Imported high quality tomatoes from New Zealand was another factor that contributed to a glut in the fresh tomato market.

Using medium-level technology and good management practices,production costs for an experienced small greenhouse tomato grower is somewhere between $2.00 and $3.00 per kg (between $6 and $9 per 3kg tray). Production costs include fixed and variable costs including wages,energy use, transport and fertiliser costs,which represent the major expenses for growers.

At the height of the 2004-2005 tomato season, growers broke even at best. However, in the low season, when prices are high,growers enjoy a reasonable profit. By amortising their returns over the year, small growers using medium level technology are generally profitable in the current market environment.

Many small growers operate roadside stalls to supplement farm income, with premium quality, large tomatoes selling anywhere between $4 and $5.50/kg. In some cases, farm gate sales represent 30% or more of total farm income, which often makes the difference between farm profitability or loss.

Sue Korevaar said that a positive to come out of current low prices is that people who have never bought hydroponic produce because of high prices will now try them, like what they try, and many will stay with the product when prices rise.

“Our market share will increase, consumer demand will increase, and the industry will be able to weather the influx of NZ tomatoes,” she recently told HFF members.

She said that small growers have to get smarter if they want to stay in business. She advises her members to talk to their agents, seed merchants, and other growers, and to look for a market niche by growing a different tomato variety. She encourages small growers to work together in an environment of “co-opetition”, a new buzz word where your competitor is your partner .It’s a concept widely practised in Europe and is gaining popularity in Australian horticultural industries, from promotional programs and pest management initiatives to supply chain and grower groups.

Over the next five years, Sue forecasts many small growers will drop out of the fresh tomato supply chain as corporate growers expand to have a greater share of the market, a trend reflected in other countries with developed greenhouse industries. She points to growers in the United Kingdom who switched to different tomato varieties when cheap Spanish tomatoes flooded that market in the 1990’s. Today, UK supermarkets carry at least 10 different types of high quality “home-grown” tomatoes that consumers can choose from, all grown hydroponically.

“For those who want to stay in the industry, they will need to find a niche market and work with other small growers to supply markets all year-round, even if growing the product is more labour intensive,” she said.

“A smart grower will say:’Hey, every hour I work, I pay my self; and that’s money in my pocket’.”

To remain profitable in the changing market environment, Sue offers the following advice to small growers:

– Change varieties
– Look for better tasting varieties
– Grow a different crop altogether
– Grow at a different time of year
– Reduce your commercial crop to supply local markets only,thereby reducing labour costs
– Reduce costs where practical
– Exploit niche markets as an individual grower or as a local grower group.
– Develop new packaging ideas that could fill a niche in the consumer marketplace
– Combine with other local growers to produce a product all year round
– Work to a business plan
– Consumer education
– Have you considered exporting?

Sue encourages small growers to calculate their production costs per kg carefully, no matter how painful.

“Historically, growers don’t include their labour costs, including working family members, when they should. Most owner-operated businesses generally don’t count the time for paperwork,” she said.

“Knowing your production cost per kg is the first step to turning your business around if the figures don’t stack up,” added Sue.

Coming out the other side of another tomato season, Sue says she is very positive about the future as more and more consumers are exposed to high quality hydroponic tomatoes and buy them on a regular basis.

In summing up, she said that small growers who want to stay in the fresh tomato business need to grow smarter to improve the bottom line,maintain a high standard of quality, keep increasing production per square metre, decrease costs where possible, look for niche markets, and to keep abreast of market trends.

“There is a bright future in this country for small growers willing to adapt to the new market environment,” she ended.

For further information contact:
Sue Korevaar, Hydroponics Farmers Federation

Issue 76: Setting New Benchmarks

May/June – 2004
Author: Steven Carruthers

Flavorite takes another bold step to consolidate its position as the leader in the Australian hydroponic tomato industry.

The Flavorite story really began in 1988 when Mark Millis, an existing tomato grower, teamed up with Warren Nichols, an experienced marketer of fresh fruit and vegetables, to grow hydroponic tomatoes at Warragul, in the heart of Victoria’s Gippsland, about 100 kilometres from Melbourne. At the time, there were only three growers in Victoria producing hydroponic tomatoes.

Mark and Warren realised early on that there was a growing demand for red, flavoursome tomatoes. They felt field-grown tomatoes that were picked green and ripened with CO2 in cool rooms weren’t meeting the demand from customers. Faced with this challenge, they set out with a vision to grow a juicy red tomato with good appearance and flavour that would become the Flavorite hallmark.

In the beginning, there were 3,000 square metres of tomatoes on the farm. In its first year, the farm produced 80 tonnes of tomatoes worth $240,000. Today, the farm has expanded to accommodate more than 60,000 square metres of plants, and in the 2004 season, Flavorite’s turnover is expected to exceed $20 million for the first time. This milestone will be made possible by the commission of a new 2ha cutting edge glasshouse facility at Warragul, the largest of its kind in Australia, and a 2ha polyhouse in Bundaberg with marketing partners HMG (Horticultural Management Group), to expand the southern winter markets and keep tomatoes more affordable during the cooler months.

HMG has invested an initial $5 million into its Bundaberg site, which will see the expansion of the site increase from 13,000sqm to 33,000sqm, with a state-of-the-art packhouse attached. Flavorite will exclusively market the fruit produced from this agreement, as well as provide technical advice in the greenhouse and packing shed. HMG has adopted the high standards of Flavorite to produce both truss and premium single tomatoes to the exacting Flavorite quality specification.

Chris O’Connor of HMG said that the reason HMG were prepared to align themselves exclusively with Flavorite, was due to the commitment that Warren Nichols and Mark Millis had to the industry. The fact that Flavorite has a long-term industry vision, focused on quality, and is a significant grower in their own right, vertically integrated, with direct contact to the supermarkets and wholesale markets, removed many of the business risks for HMG.

The ongoing significance of the partnership lies in the commitment of HMG to invest a further $10 million over the next five years to increase the Bundaberg greenhouse area to around 100,000sqm.

Grower synergies
Flavorite not only grow their own tomatoes, but pack and market single and truss tomatoes for many leading growers located throughout Australia who meet the strict Flavorite quality specifications. “Other growers provide 50% of the product to the famous Flavorite brand,” Mark Millis told his audience of more than 400 growers, industry specialist, community business leaders and Flavorite staff who had gathered for the official glasshouse opening. “They’ve grown with us, and they make a big contribution to the development of our company,” he acknowledged.

These affiliated growers benefit from marketing under the famous Flavorite brand, which has become a quality trademark for premium tomatoes throughout Australia.

The Warragul site includes a newly renovated packing shed, which has increased Flavorite’s packing capacity three-fold. The new grading line incorporates an automatic conveyor belt system with recording facilities for date stamping, grower coding and labelling.

Flavorite also pack trusses or bunches of tomatoes into pre-packs, which the company introduced into the market 18 months ago. “There’s a big swing to them mainly because of the actual way that a truss ripens itself, from the top of the truss down,” said Flavorite Sales Manager, Caleb Rudd.

Pre-packed truss tomatoes also have other benefits. Prior to the advent of tamper resistant pre-packs, consumers would often separate single tomatoes from the stem with only around 40% of truss tomatoes going through the register. “Since the introduction of Flavorite pre-packs, the scan rate is about 98%,” said Caleb.

Pre-packs also eliminate product bruising from excessive handling. Arie Baedle, the principal of Rijk Zwaan Seeds, said that growers need to really take note of what the green stem means. “From research around the world, we know that with every handling, a tomato will immediately lose flavour and shelf-life. Therefore, the green stem is the buyer guarantee that the tomato has been carefully handled, that it has full flavour, and it tells the consumer it is a greenhouse grown hydroponic tomato,” said Arie.

New Glasshouse facility
The new glasshouse is a significant building in many ways, and represents a coming of age for the Australian greenhouse industry.

“It’s a quantum leap forward in tomato production capabilities,” said Mark Millis .

“It shows that we can create buildings that can cost-effectively produce tomatoes to meet the demand that’s growing in the marketplace. He added that the new glasshouse would force Flavorite competitors to make similar investments, and he welcomed the challenge.

“The industry can only benefit from having more quality production,” he said. “This building is going to spawn more buildings like it, and it’s going to happen quickly as other growers and investors understand its capabilities,” he predicted.

The new glasshouse is significant because of the technology that’s involved in it. The glasshouse includes the latest irrigation and fertigation equipment, a cost-effective natural gas heating system that includes CO2 extraction to increase plant yields, and a computer system that automatically opens and closes roof vents, activates internal misting, or covers the crop with thermal/shade covers to maintain optimum growing conditions inside the glasshouse. In extreme heat conditions, the computer will also activate sprinklers on the roof to cool the inside environment.

Designed and installed by Faber Glasshouses Australia, the 2ha (19, 840sqm) building took around eight weeks to complete. Constructed from steel, aluminium and toughened glass, the building has a gutter height from 5 to 5.1 metres, measured from the underside of the gutters, with a typical Venlo-style roof ventilation system of 20%.

“The height of the greenhouse is important to create an even air buffer above the whole crop,” said Faber Glasshouse Australia Managing Director, George Jonker. “The air buffer will ensure that temperature fluctuations are handled in such a way as to prevent the crop from stressing.”

Mr Jonker said that the height of the greenhouse is only one part of a combination of design features and other equipment that are arranged in such a way to benefit plant production and minimise the risk of crop damage from excessive environmental changes. The glasshouse is fitted with the latest environmental control technology, including thermal/shade screens above the plants that automatically cover and uncover the crop (depending on solar radiation) to maintain optimum growing conditions. Automatic misting outlets are located below the thermal/shade screens, should they be called upon to cool the glasshouse down, or increase humidity. Temperature, light and humidity sensors located throughout the glasshouse constantly feed information back to the ‘Integral’ computer system that maintains optimum growing conditions.

Hanging gutter growing system
The hanging gutter hydroponic system is also an integral part of the new Flavorite production system that delivers product 365 days of the year all over Australia. According to Vaughn Pearce, Managing Director of Agrihort Irrigation Systems, the hanging gutters produce a higher crop yield compared to hydroponic growing systems on the ground. Agrihort Irrigation Systems were contracted by Flavorite to design and install the growing system now popularly used in Europe to grow hydroponic tomatoes.

Mr Pearce attributes the increased tomato yield to better air flow around plants, and better light penetration in winter.

“The benefits of the hanging gutter are increased production as a result of disease reduction through better ventilation around the crop, as well as excellent drainage control. When you combine this with production increases from interplanting, the results are undeniable, ” said Mr Pearce.

Another strong benefit of the hanging gutter is the convenient height for workers to manage the crop.

During the colder months, heating pipes on the ground, that double as trolley rails, radiate their warmth upwards through the crop as warm air rises. Barely visible under the hanging gutters are plastic ducts which run horizontally down each row, enriching the environment around the plants with CO2 extracted from the natural gas-fuelled boiler.

Cultural information
With a planting density of three plants per square metre, the new facility houses 50,000 tomato plants. The life of a plant is between nine to 12 months and each plant will produce 20 to 25kg of tomatoes. Over a 12-month period, the new glasshouse is expected to yield an average of 20kg per square metre more of fruit than twin-skin plastic greenhouses.

Predominately, Flavorite grow the ‘Tradiro’ and ‘Conchita’ tomato varieties. Tradiro has been noted for its robustness and good flavour during most seasons. To ensure the best tasting varieties are available, Flavorite is continually trialling new varieties. Current experimental varieties include ‘Clarence’ and ‘Labell’ tomatoes. All these varieties are available from RijkZwaan seeds.

Seeds are started in Grodan rockwool cubes in the on-site propagating hothouse for three days at 29°C at 100% humidity until germination takes place. Once the plant develops its first set of leaves, it is placed in a larger rockwool block and grown to the first flowering stage before planting out into the 2ha glasshouse on rockwool slabs. The plant is then supplied with a dripper, which will provide water and nutrients for the rest of its life.

During their lives, plants grow to 10-12 metres in length and are wound onto string hanging from wire in the roof of the glasshouse. This allows plenty of air and sunshine, which enables Flavorite to nurture and develop premium grade tomatoes. Crop management practices include layering and interplanting techniques, made easier by the hanging gutter system that allows plenty of light and air for young plants to develop. Each plant is closely monitored to ensure its nutrient and environmental requirements are met. Computers control the environment, watering, humidity and heating, but the human ‘green finger’ touch is never far away. Plants are hand-pollinated with vibrators three times weekly (Monday, Wednesday and Friday), and tomatoes are harvested daily.

The IPM program consists of the whitefly parasitoid (Encarsia formosa), and sulphur powder sprinkled on the floor as a disease preventation measure. Reflecting current European practices, after deleafing, debris is left on the floor under the hanging gutters, out of the way, between the heating pipes. Once considered a bad management practice, in some circumstances, plant debris makes an ideal habitat for re-emerging whitefly parasitoid.

According to NSWAgriculture Senior Research Scientist, Dr Stephen Goodwin, the plant debris will dry out from the nearby heating pipes, and does not pose a serious disease risk. However, he doesn’t recommend this practice if the debris is allowed to remain moist.

Future developments
Spearheading Flavorite into the future is Executive Grower Horst Sjostedt, a hydroponic grower with 35 years’ experience. Horst has extensive experience in large operations growing tomatoes in Colorado (USA), Portugal, and his home country of Sweden. As part of Grodan’s top 20 grower list, Horst recently returned from Italy, bringing back the latest information on growing varieties and marketing that will influence Flavorite’s ongoing development.

The Flavorite site at Warragul employs 150 skilled and semi-skilled full-time workers, with another 30-35 sales and marketing staff located at the Melbourne wholesale markets. Mr Millis announced work would begin on a second 2ha glasshouse in early 2005, offering more skilled job opportunities for the Gippsland region. To help meet the future skills base, Flavorite offer training programs in horticulture and packaging for its staff, affiliated growers, and students from nearby McMillan Campus.

“When we came to Warragul, unemployment was just over 20%,” said Mark Millis. “Currently, it’s just under 5% and this year Flavorite will put $4 million in wages into the local community.”

Looking to the future, Mr Millis said there are career paths in management and irrigation, and such careers are available to all Flavorite staff.

In the space of a decade, Flavorite has become Australia’s largest greenhouse tomato production, packaging and marketing business, and a significant employer of skilled and semi-skilled workers, not only in the Gippsland region, but also throughout Australia. From the beginning, the Flavorite brand has built its reputation on a juicy red, flavoursome tomato with a long shelf-life, that hasn’t been picked green and gas-ripened in cool rooms.

While the new state-of-the-art glasshouse is the largest of its kind inAustralia, it’s small by international standards, but it does represent a significant step forward for the Australian hydroponic and greenhouse industry. By comparison, the New Zealand tomato industry made the move to higher technology much earlier than Australia, with Faber Glasshouses the main structures used by large-scale operators. The largest Faber glasshouse facility in New Zealand is about 23ha, and still expanding.

With the construction of Australia’s largest automated glasshouse to grow tomatoes, Mark Millis and Warren Nichols have recognised that Australian growers need to look at tomato growing as a production line with the whole operation streamlined like a factory. This is being driven by the big food chains and other large companies that demand large quantities of high quality fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers and fish. Another important influence driving the change in the way we grow fruits and vegetables is Occupational Health & Safety (OH&S) issues, which are forcing growers to change to higher technology to become more efficient and profitable.

Flavorite is the firstAustralian business in the hydroponic and greenhouse industry to make the inevitable move to higher technology to match world production standards. To achieve its vision, the company has adopted the European way of doing business by working collaboratively with industry experts, from Australia and overseas, and with other growers to produce premium quality product. The geographical spread of Flavorite growers will allow the business to market high quality tomatoes all year round.

By 2020, the Flavorite vision tells us that over half of Australia’s tomatoes will be grown in glasshouses, generating sales of over $200 million and creating many thousands of jobs throughout Australia. Starting with this new glasshouse facility, Flavorite plans to lead the Australian industry forward in the new technological age of growing high quality hydroponic tomatoes for the growing market. The long term Flavorite vision is to build another 20ha of glasshouses next to the existing Warragul site.

As the industry continues to develop, Flavorite should not only be congratulated for creating a vibrant new industry in the Gippsland region, but also for raising the bar and setting new benchmarks for the Australian Hydroponics and Greenhouse industry.

For further information contact:
Flavorite Hydroponic Tomatoes
POBox 739, Warragul, Vic 3820