Posts Tagged ‘ Shade 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 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.