Posts Tagged ‘ technology ’

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.

Breakthrough technology improves lettuce harvest yields

BiOWiSH™, a breakthrough enzyme technology, has boosted hydroponic lettuce weights by up to 30% at harvest time, according to results of a recent trial. The new technology was adopted during multiple full growing cycles at the Glenorie Hydroponics lettuce farm in New South Wales. The results showed BiOWiSH™ treated lettuce were 17% to 30% heavier at harvest time for red and green butter lettuce varieties, respectively.

BiOWiSH™ is a natural soil ameliorant and water treatment that provides an optimum environment for plant development and growth. Through the action of a proprietary group of enzymes and co-factors, BiOWiSH™ enhances the availability of nutrients, producing healthier, more vibrant and stronger plants.

Joe D’anastasi, owner of Glenorie Hydroponics, said the technology will revolutionise the industry by helping farmers to harvest more regularly.

“I have been in the hydroponics business for 23 years and I haven’t seen anything like it before.”

“We introduced the technology in one of our worst performing greenhouses, to really test it out, but within weeks it became one of our best in terms of plant performance and health.

Not only were the lettuces heavier, they were also thicker and more consistent,” he said.

According to BiOWiSH Technologies Sales and Marketing Manager, Cameron Burgess, the technology also prevents problematic sludge build-up and algae accumulation in irrigation channels by accelerating the breakdown of organic wastes into its final inert compounds.

Mr Burgess added that the potential impacts of the technology on a global scale are huge.

“Food production needs to triple in the next 50 years to feed a rapidly growing global population. It is exciting to think what our technology can do to help address looming food shortages worldwide,” he said.

BiOWiSH Technologies owns exclusive rights to BiOWiSH™. The company has adapted the technology for the hydroponics market by developing a powder product called BiOWiSH™-Crop, which is added to irrigation tanks as part of a hydroponics farm’s nutrient system.

BiOWiSH™-Crop is distributed locally by Accent Hydroponics. To download the complete Glenorie Hydroponics case study, go to the company website.

For further information contact:
Lorenzo Gella,
BiOWiSH Technologies

Issue 108: Intelligent Farm Management – Ghost Gully Produce

September/October 2009
By Steven Carruthers

Water restrictions and farm management issues have driven many growers to water-saving technology to ensure their operations are resource and cost effective. Ghost Gully Produce is an example of this technology playing a key role in intelligent farm management.

Seedlings are grown by the grower’s mother-in-law.

Ghost Gully grow seven lettuce varieties – red and green corals, oaks, minuettes and baby cos.

Farm infrastructure includes sand filters and a mist cooling system.

Gary and Kym Samuelsen.

Located in Gatton, Ghost Gully Produce is one of a handful of small family-owned hydroponic farms in the Lockyer Valley, in South East Queensland. Gary Samuelsen, a former dairy farmer, turned to hydroponic lettuce and herb production not long after the dairy industry deregulated. Seven years ago the family purchased a run-down 18 ha nursery, mostly scrub, with four small greenhouse structures (20m wide x 75m long). Gary replaced the plastic roofing with hail net and adapted the existing benching infrastructure to an NFT growing system using half-round stormwater pipes with soft plastic covers and slits to accommodate seedling plugs.

New infrastructure includes five growing systems under hail net.

The retrofit greenhouse structures have open-sides and hail net roofing.

“That got us started,” said Gary, “and then we met Joe who formulated our nutrient and introduced us to proper channel with clip-on lids.”

Joe Crane is a specialist consultant in the region with over a decade of experience in nutrient formulation, hydroponic system analyses and design, and farm automation, including cold room temperature logging. The collaboration has resulted in new farm infrastructure, including washing, packing and cooling sheds, five new NFT growing systems under 1 ha of hail net, Black Max ozone water disinfection equipment, and a WiSA water management system.

Water Management System
The Australian-developed WiSA system was primarily designed as an irrigation system for field farming to enable precise control of water and nutrient applications. The system is connected to a dedicated PC 24/7 to get the optimum data and utilisation of equipment. Following a number of below average rainfall years and severe water restrictions in South East Queensland, Joe took it upon himself to redesign the system for hydroponics. WiSA was so impressed the Victorian-based company appointed Joe its Queensland distributor, and Ghost Gully Produce became the first hydroponic farm to adopt WiSA water-saving technology.

“Stage 4 water restrictions meant we had to reduce water usage by 25%,” explained Joe. “The WiSA system allowed us to attain 33.3% water saving,” he added.

When Gary first started the business he used town water but was beset with problems including Pythium and occasionally over-chlorination. Today, he uses a combination of town and dam water and ozone disinfection.

The farm operates six large storage tanks, each holding 95,000 litres.

Aquatic weeds minimise water evaporation.

From the dam, the catchment water is pumped into three large storage tanks (95,000L each) where it is treated with Sporekill to reduce the pathogen load. When required, the water is transferred to duplicate upper level storage tanks with in-line ozone (O3) injection to ensure the water is free of pathogens. The upper storage tanks supply clean water pumped to eight growing systems on the property.

Dam water is first treated with Sporekill to reduce the pathogen load.

Each growing system has its own dedicated reservoir tank (10,000L), dosing equipment and ozone generator. In total, the farm operates 14 Black Max ozone generators at strategic points throughout the water system to prevent water-borne diseases.

The WiSA system works in real-time, that is, what is happening now, not last week. Variable factors such as water usage, farm tank levels, system pressures, nutrient conductivity, pH, temperature (air and water), humidity, rainfall, nutrient dosing times and valve timing are monitored and logged by the WiSA system.

Joe Crane explains the WiSA system with automatic nutrient dosing.

Sensors monitor air temperature and humidity.

“These variables are the basis for automated decision-making on the farm, and can be graphed and recalled individually and comparatively over time periods for farm management decisions,” explains Joe.

The WiSA system manages variables in real time.

The level of monitoring also extends to the washing shed and cold-room where sensors record temperature in 30-second increments.

“In the event of a dispute over cold-chain management, we’ve got the records,” said Joe.

An interesting aspect of the WiSA management system is nutrient management. By analysing the conductivity factor and water temperature of the nutrient reservoir, the conductivity can be adjusted according to water temperature on a floating scale. Nutrient is added to increase CF via automated dosing pumps, and CF is decreased through plant usage.

“The computer scales the nutrient formulation for us,” explains Joe. “Most of the time we run so long that we only dump when it rains,” he added.

The farm’s nutrient formulation process is proprietary to Joe’s consultancy business, Cyber-Hydroponics, with nutrient formulations uniquely tailored to suit water supply, individual crops, and to account for seasonal variations in temperature. Farm formulations are prepared by the farmer, offering a cost saving over conventional nutrients.

At first, the use of multiple Black Max ozone generators (BM2s) at different points in the water system seems excessive.

Gary Davies from Black Max explains the ozone injection system.

“The farm is spread over a large area and it was more practical to use multiple units,” explains Gary Davies, principal of Adelaide-based Black Max Ozone Generators. “A smaller, centralised farm would not require as many units” he said.

The Australian-made Black Max ozone generator was first introduced to the hydroponics industry in the late 1990s, at a time when many growers were unaware of the benefits of using ozone, or O3, to disinfect water. It is one of the most effective bactericides known to science. On the oxidation chart it is listed above chlorine, iodine and bromine, but unlike these chemical options for disinfection, ozone dissolved in water breaks down to oxygen in 15-20 minutes, leaving no chemical residues.

Ozone generators are linked to disinfect dam water.

System reservoirs are coated with insulation to keep temperatures warmer during winter and cooler in summer.

Ghost Gully uses the BM2 unit, which produces 2.6mg of ozone/litre of air for treatment of reservoirs up to 10,000 litres. Black Max also makes the smaller BM1 that produces 0.6mg of ozone/litre of air, for treatment of any size reservoirs up to 2,000 litres. Housed in marine grade aluminium casings, the BM1 and BM2 use a high quality ozone-producing UV lamp operating at a precise wavelength. The units have a small see-through window to easily and quickly check lamp operation. Ozone is introduced in-line using the ‘venturi’ principle, a vacuum effect caused by a reduction in fluid pressure that results when a fluid flows through a constricted section of pipe.

Both the grower and Joe are convinced about the effectiveness of ozone. Joe recalls an incident when an ozone lamp failed and a pathogen problem became evident in one section of the farm.

“Gary called me the next day about a problem on the farm, something we hadn’t seen for a long time,” recounts Joe. “We quickly worked out that an ozone lamp had failed after several years’ use. We put a spare unit onto the system and the problem quickly disappeared.

“There is no doubt in our minds about the effectiveness of the ozone system in pathogen control.”

Ozone is also used in the washing water to remove bacteria, fungi and moulds, and is said to extend the shelf-life of produce. Trials at Ghost Gully Produce point to a 3-week shelf life once lettuce leaves the cold-room.

Harvesting is made easier using a re-engineered ground lettuce harvester.

Ozone bubbles through the washing water.

Higher yields, quality and longer shelf-life are attributed to ozone treatment.

“They just last longer,” said Gary Samuelsen.

The longer shelf-life could also be partly attributed to a twice-weekly foliar spray of SilikaMajic, a potassium silicate-based product from Flairform (

“It’s got to be a good thing,” said the grower. “It promotes cell growth and slows down transpiration. In summer, lettuce stay good for an extra 2 days, longer than normal without it,” he added.

According to Joe, ozone is extremely effective at controlling water borne diseases such as Pythium.

“Pathogens are always there,” he explains, “but ozone keeps them under control.”

He added that pathogens are hardy and likely to harbour in irrigation lines.

“Most are eliminated when the return water reaches the system reservoir, which is ozonated 24/7,” he said.

“I recommend that all my consulting farms use the ozone sterilisation method. As well as being effective, the Black Max units are robust and have an excellent life.”

At under $1,000, the Black Max ozone generators are supplied with a fully assembled installation kit consisting of 3 metres of ozone hose, non-return valve and ozone jet (venturi). Accessories include a ‘maxizone’ injector that requires a minimum flow rate of 1,800 litres/hr and a ‘megazone’ injector manifold requiring a minimum flow rate of 9,000 litres/hr, to suit 1-2 hp pumps.

Final remarks
With an annual production capacity of over a million plants and plenty of room to expand, Ghost Gully continues to be a work in progress.

Water-saving practices start at the dam, which has been allowed to grow over with weed to minimise evaporation. It also eliminated the large duck population that once frequented the dam.

“If ducks can’t see the water, they won’t land,” quips the grower.

On-farm water-saving practices also include capturing overflow rainwater, referred to by the grower as “God’s nectar”, from the building structures and growing systems. All the system tanks have overflows that route excess water to a lower catchment tank (38,000L). When the water reaches a certain level it is pumped to the upper storage tanks.

But the heart of the operation is the WiSA water management system that allows produce to be turned over from seedling to market in a way that’s both resource and cost-effective. Recording variables such as water usage and storage and processing temperatures assists with the farm’s water efficiency program and Quality Assurance compliance.

Ghost Gully has shown that ozone disinfection is simple and efficient, with benefits including higher yields and quality and longer shelf-life, and no chemical residues. Where ozone disinfection was once cost-prohibitive for many small and larger growers alike, the Black Max ozone systems are affordable.

Ghost Gully Produce is a highly successful operation and a prime example of automation playing a key role in intelligent farm management.

For further information contact:
Gary Samuelsen
Ghost Gully Produce,
2 Rangeview Drive, Gatton Old 4343
Ph: 07 5462-5502
Fax: 07 5462-5504

Joe Crane
PO Box 3918, Burleigh Town, Qld 4220
Mob:0416 232 030
Fax: 07 3319-0926

Gary Davies
Black Max Ozone Systems,
PO Box 429, Noarlunga Centre, SA 5168
Ph: 08 8327-3150
Mob: 0408 825 511
Fax: 08 8327-3144

Graeme Wright
WiSA Irrigation Solutions,
PO Box 592, Echuca, Vic 3564
Ph: 03 5480-7713
Fax: 03 5482-3736

Issue 93: Canadian Greenhouse Study Tour

March/April – 2007
Author: Sue Korevaar

SUE KOREVAAR reports on her tour to study the North American greenhouse vegetable industry, including a look at energy, labour and food safety issues.

Our objective for this 10-day study tour was to visit greenhouse sites growing primarily tomatoes, capsicums (or peppers as they call them) and cucumbers on both sides of Canada, and to attend the Canadian Greenhouse Conference in Toronto.

A highlight of the study tour was a visit to Niagara Falls.

I may as well say at the outset, I don’t sleep on planes very well and if you consider that it took 15 flying hours from Melbourne to Los Angeles, 3 hours in LA airport waiting for a connecting flight, and a further 3 hour flight to Vancouver, then road transport to our hotel, all without any sleep, you could say I was a tad tired. However, our intrepid team leader Graeme Smith, looking bright as a button, had us all up and into the cars bright and early the next morning. Bless him.

The study tour group.

Before I go any further it would probably be a good idea to give you all an overall picture of the Canadian and US hydroponic industry.

Basically, there are two main growing areas, British Columbia (the west side) and Ontario (the east side), two vastly different growing climates each with their own individual growing challenges.

The first thing I noticed while travelling in the car, was that petrol was between 90 cents and $1.00 per litre (so much for world parity prices), and a visit to the supermarket told me that average prices for vine-ripened tomatoes was anything from $1- $2.40 per pound, around A$4.40 per kg top price. This means that growers rely heavily on economies of scale to make any money.

Double Diamond Greenhouses

Some statistics
In the delta area of British Colombia (west side) there is approximately 600 hectares of a combination of twin-skinned poly and glass houses. Lemington, arguably the tomato capital of Canada (east side), has a total area of approximately 1,500 hectares. It’s an amazing place with large scale farms closely dotted around the Lemington area. Both areas have very large farms, starting around 10 -12 hectares, with the larger growers having some 26 hectares and growing a combination of all three major crops.

Capsicum crop, Lemington.

Small grower, Delta District, BC..

Leafminer damage.

Both areas rely heavily on the US market to send their produce, with 15% going to Canadian markets and 85% to US markets, respectively. The US market demands large beefsteak tomato varieties (i.e. 250gms average), with no change in the foreseeable future.

Although tomatoes make up the major part of greenhouse hydroponic production, capsicums come in around 280 hectares, cucumbers just over 200 hectares, cocktail tomatoes 40 hectares, and mini cucs 15 – 20 hectares.

Cucumber seedling nursery.

In British Colombia, the greenhouses are primarily glass, Dutch ventlow systems; however, in Ontario there is a good spread of twin-skinned poly houses as well as glass. Having said that, there is a trend towards glass for new constructions. I asked several growers why they would choose the poly houses over glass, and it came down to a cost factor – glass is twice the price to construct compared to a poly house, and the returns do not justify the capital outlay in many cases. Sound familiar?

Interesting to note, it is the end of the season for many of the growers we visited and most were bemoaning the fact that if they were lucky they would break even this year, with costs running out at approximately 70 cents per pound and returns coming back to them at around the same price, perhaps a little better at 80 cents per pound.

There are some issues for the Canadian protected cropping industry dealing primarily with the US.

– Alternative fuels vs capital equipment
– Unstable future with the US
– Currency exchange between the two countries
– Food safety programs
– Labour issues
– Border crossing issues.

However, there are strong industry grower groups building and developing better markets/relationships with the US, and their quality to date is of a higher standard than fruit grown in and around Mexico.

Growth rate for greenhouses in Canada in the next five years will continue to displace the field product, and there are continued plans for existing large scale operations to expand.

Greenhouse market in the USA
Glass is preferred over poly. The first greenhouses started in the north, but in the 1990s there was a general trend to move further south, closer to the Mexican border, which allows them to grow all year round in these locations with access to Mexican labour.

Interestingly in the US, small family farms with less than 2,000 sqm are still quite prevalent, followed by the next level of around 2 hectares with not much in between. These miscellaneous growers make up around 30 hectares of the total greenhouse pool.

In 2005, there were 300 hectares growing tomatoes, with a breakdown as follows: 90 hectares – beefsteak; 190 hectares cluster (truss); and around 20 hectares of cocktail/specialty varieties. This compares with 1997 (still around 300 hectares), but all crops were beefsteak varieties.

Hothouse cucumbers, or seedless cucumbers as they are known in the US, are not well known or desired at this stage. Specialties – mini cucs or ‘Cool Cukes’ – are starting to become available, but are a small part of the market. Overall, the greenhouse area has stayed much the same; but as the smaller concerns go, the bigger operations take their place.

In the US, growers work on interplanting and two crops per 12-month period. Total greenhouse production in the US is 47,000 tons, which is 2% of the total fresh tomato market. Field tomatoes from Florida (18,000 ha) and California (16,000 ha), with a total production of 2.3 million tonnes, make up the lion’s share of table tomatoes in the US. The food service industry is very high and this is primarily serviced by the field tomatoes.

Grafted tomatoes make up 65% of beefsteak crops, because the rootstock has an insurance effect against Pepino Mosaic Virus (PepMV), and 95% of growers use double cropping.

Truss tomatoes in the US are called ‘Tomato-on-the-Vine’ (TOV) or cluster tomatoes, and the demand for quality hydroponic tomatoes is growing.

Possible trends in the US are niche markets (i.e., cherry, cocktail, heirlooms etc). It would seem that the returns are better and a lot of the smaller family farms are chasing this market to stay viable.

It seems to me that there is a lot of similarity between smaller growers in the US and Australia – slower growth, with some family concerns upgrading and increasing in size.

The US market is increasing protected cropping facilities by approximately 10-20 hectares per year – this is mostly in the southern parts of the US where there is more light and low humidity. There is a greenhouse complex in the southern part of the US that has over 80 hectares on one site. Labour is made up of Mexican immigrants, and 50% of the workers come from the low security Arizona jail. If the prisoners are good they get work in the greenhouses and earn a normal wage, which they can then send back to their families.

For both Canada and the US, there are agreements with the Mexican and Jamaican governments to allow workers from Mexico to come for a maximum period of eight months per year. As part of the deal, most companies supply accommodation, but not their groceries. Including all loadings, the cost of labour per hour is around $10.30 Canadian. I’m not sure what the American rate would be, but it would be similar with superannuation replaced by a retirement tax. The system works well for all concerned, as labour shortages in both countries is a big issue.

Speaking with some of the growers, all is not happy in some cases. Like all groups, you have your good and bad workers. However, if any worker does not pull his or her weight, they are given the old ‘heave ho’ back to their respective countries.

Productivity in the high-tech greenhouses is similar in both countries. Canada (British Columbia) can be as high as 75 kg per sqm using C02, interplanting and growing two crops per year. In the US, the top growers are achieving 80 kg per sqm, growing for a full 12 months of the year. However, a lot of the Canadian growers we spoke to were averaging around 50 kg per sqm.

Back to the tour
Our first visit was to Abbotsford, an open day at a 4 ha glass capsicum farm sponsored by the British Columbia Growers Association. The owner of the farm believes that 4 ha is a minimum for an operation to have critical mass. For all you techno junkies, 5m gutter, with crop wire at 3.3 m. The span is 9.6 m with six paths per span. The medium is yellow cedar sawdust, however, there is a growing trend for growers to use coir. Using gas boilers to generate heat and CO2, the grower averages around 25 kg per sqm.

4ha greenhouse facility, BC.

The grower prefers to leave rotting fruit on the floor along with any discarded vegetation to save labour. I imagine the smell would be a little off-putting in the summer months. Visually, there was plenty of grub damage – he did mention they use 100% biological controls. The farm employed 15 full-time workers, which equates to 1.5 -2 people per 4,000 sqm. The grower’s return was around $65 per sqm. He used a sand filter for cleaning the recirculating nutrient only. All packing is done by an independent and marketed by a British Colombia grower group.

The glasshouse is made by a local company with costs coming in around $6.5 million for a 4 ha turnkey facility. Labour and energy costs are the grower’s largest issues – women are hired for crop work, and men for cleaning out the crop.

The total annual farm gate sales for BC greenhouses in 2005 was +$220million. The number of people employed is more than 3,200. It is estimated that the greenhouse value to British Colombia’s economy is +$670 million per annum.

We next visited a 3 ha English cucumber glasshouse. Half the area was lit with lights. The grower aims for 450-500 gm fruit using high wire and layering. The other half of the glasshouse was unlit, lower wire/umbrella, yielding 155-160 fruit per sqm. Both sides are leaf pruned, and the plants twisted on the high wire twice a week. The media used is hemlock sawdust, but the grower is going to trial coir. Whitefly is the dominant insect pest. Interestingly, the grower had eggplant as an attraction plant.

In peak times, there are 17 workers in the crop with 30-32 people in the pack house. Mini cucumbers are packed in 500 gm bags, which seemed a lot to me; but they assured me demand for the product was high.

All the growers agreed that research centres were one of the major reasons why protected cropping has developed to the level it has.

We did manage to sightsee around the Vancouver area on Sunday, which was quite spectacular – at that time of the year some of the leaves were turning and the colours were picture postcard.

A visit to a local park and a spectacular suspension bridge over the Capilano Gorge had me experiencing a fair amount of acrophobia, however, once I was firmly in the middle of the bridge, Chris Millis decided to cause it to sway dramatically, proving how safe it was and alleviating any fears I had. What a nice guy!

Dinner at Grouse Mountain via gondola and overlooking Vancouver at night was a splendid sight. Michael, our waiter from Moonee Ponds, Victoria, gave us excellent service.

Canadian Greenhouse Conference
It was time for us to make the journey to Toronto and visit the two-day Canadian Greenhouse Conference. It was quite a large venue with over 200 trade sites in the exhibition area. Interestingly, the conference combined with the nursery industry, which is a good idea, as it reduced the price of admission for delegates to Can$30 for the two days. Of course, they didn’t supply food or the wonderful conference dinner like we do, but it is possibly the way to go for us in Australia. It’s a concept worth looking at.

Unfortunately, organizers did not supply a proceedings book, however, each guest speaker had a stapled handout of their Powerpoint presentation. It was well worth the time we spent there.

Later that day we drove south to Lemington, touted as the tomato capital of Canada. Lemington is also the home of the Heinz processing plant, located in the centre of town, with 17,000 acres of tomatoes grown under contract at a yield of 60 tonnes per acre. Bacterial canker is rife in the outdoor crops, which affects the indoor crop via the wind. Pepino Mosaic Virus is a problem in every tomato crop.

Yellow specialty clusters.
The first site we visited was Double Diamond, which has 20 acres of tomatoes, 4 acres ‘cucs’, and 26 acres of capsicum. The main tomato crop was, of course, beefsteak, the variety being half ‘Macarana’ and the other half ‘Big Deena’. The yield is approximately 52 kg/sqm with a plant density of 9,600 plants per acre.

The Double Diamond greenhouse facility produces tomatoes, cucumbers and capsicum.

Bumblebees were everywhere and I honestly believe if they had to manually pollinate, then the tomato sector of the industry would not be viable. Growers use 6-7 hives per week and the hives are left in the greenhouse to die out. They do not spread into the wild and if they do, it seems that they cannot survive the winters. There are three workers per acre used for tomato production, and two workers per acre for cucumbers.

Bumblebee pollination.

I guess because it is so topical at the moment in Australia, I was quite fascinated by the bumblebees, which were used throughout all the tomato crops we visited. Generally, the usage was around 200 hives per 10 acres.

Energy and labour issues
Cost of energy is a major issue, with current costs of natural gas being around $9 per Gj; however, there is a big trend to go to wood waste, which brings down the cost of heating (including labour to man the heater 24/7) to approximately $3.50 per Gj.

Natural gas boiler.

Wood waste delivery system.

From a labour perspective they had approximately 44 people working in the greenhouse with another 15 in the packhouse during the summer period. This was for tomatoes only. For capsicum production, the labour component in the greenhouses was approximately 50 people covering 26 acres. Because PepMV is so prevalent, workers are constantly disinfecting their hands after every plant, using a disinfectant called Vercon. With regard to the tomatoes, they are picked at quarter colour, due to the transport time expended to get them to the USA.

Overall, when we spoke to growers throughout Canada, their biggest issues were energy (temperatures drop to minus 15 degrees C with snow cover in the winter), high transport costs, and labour. It was very difficult to get any Canadian labour with more than 80% of the workforce coming from Mexico. This posed additional workloads to most managers, and the cheap labour did not come without some headaches.

Food safety
Other points of interest were that food safety programs required all entry and exit points to the greenhouses be locked 24/7. At Double Diamond, they did not leave any leaf material on the ground, indeed, they used a vacuum which ran along the pipes to collect any debris. By comparison, it takes approximately 54 man-hours to sweep the floors, but only 34 man-hours using the manned machine.

Vacuum cleaning machinery.

A lot of the properties we visited used golf carts and bicycles to navigate the site, and many had a small toilet block in the middle of walk-ways in the greenhouses. Good thinking, from a labour-saving perspective.

Internal toilet facilities.

Most polyhouses replaced 1/4 of their plastic every year, which of course means they are continually replacing their plastic, with a general expectation that the plastic would be replaced every four years.

Market realities
As I mentioned earlier, this year has not been kind to many of the tomato growers. To give readers an indication of returns, at Prism Farm, which produces both beefsteak and cherry tomatoes, the grower admitted that prices were somewhat lacking this year. Production costs were approximately $6-7 per tray, but during the summer period they were only getting a return of $4-5 per tray. Late winter did produce some better figures of approximately $16 per tray. This meant that cost of production was approximately 80 cents per pound of tomatoes, but the grower only achieved a return of 90 cents per pound. How familiar does this sound at the moment? The grower went on to say that the reason for some of the lower prices, was the chain stores wanted to make more profit with less volume. This meant the higher prices forced a glut through low consumer demand. Hello, some things just don’t change, even in different hemispheres.

Specialty tomato packaging.

For lunch that day, we went to a unique property which used to be a nursery producing potted plants. Unfortunately, there did not seem to be much money in this venture, so the grower converted his glasshouses to a restaurant, with quite a few gift shops. His old glasshouse is the restaurant area with large seating volumes and several huge fichus trees for shelter. Interestingly, these trees looked in tip top condition and when we asked what he did to keep them so healthy, he simply prunes them when required and sprays them once a week with a diluted sunlight dishwashing liquid as an insecticide. All the indoor plants looked fantastic, so go figure. He did sell local hydro produce, with all proceeds going to local charities. The whole operation was very innovative and quite impressive. The male members in our group enjoyed the all-you-can-eat concept of the restaurant.

Harrow research facility
Later that day we visited the Harrow research facility, which is the largest dedicated greenhouse research facility for greenhouse and processing crops in Northern America. Crops on trial were organic cucumbers and tomatoes. Unfortunately, the results were not complete, but it would be interesting to find out if it was viable.

Other research concepts under study include the idea of pumping foam in between the two layers of poly to filter out high light conditions. It was quite impressive to watch. It seems that when the foam was not required, they used water to disperse the foam in a recirculating system. The shading effect was approximately 36-40% with a thermal saving of approximately 50-60%.

Another grad student was researching the possibility of using bumblebees to spread agents for fungal control.

Italian connection
Finally, on the last day in Lemington, we visited a capsicum/cucumber farm consisting of 12 acres. The owner, Albert Mastronadi, is a first generation Canadian from an Italian background. It was interesting to note that approximately 70% of the greenhouse district is from Italian descent, many from the same Italian village called Villa Canale, which is in the Molise region.

Albert was in the process of commissioning the biggest damm boiler/heater I had ever seen. Again, for you techno gurus, it was a 6 Mw Vynche boiler fuelled with wood waste. Albert believes his $2 million investment (inclusive of building infrastructure) will pay for itself in five years. He has budgeted to use the boiler/heater for approximately 165 days a year, and believes with an additional 12 acres the boiler will be well worth all the effort and cost. Even with wood waste costing him $40-50 per tonne, he believes it to be a good investment. Currently, Albert is paying $9 per Gj for natural gas and expects the wood waste system to decrease his costs to $4 per Gj.

Wood waste Vynche boiler.

Boiler wood waste material.

Wood waste delivery system.

We were now on the tail end of our trip, so with this in mind we made quite a large detour to visit Niagara Falls. Well worth it, the view was one of the most spectacular I had ever encountered. Awesome!

Niagara Falls, Canada.

Final remarks
In conclusion, our trip was well worth the effort and I congratulate Graeme Smith and the Australian Hydroponic & Greenhouse Association (AHGA) for organizing the whole event, which went very smoothly from start to finish.

I would like to thank all of the growers we visited in Canada, who to a man/woman were very forthcoming with their information and hospitality. I would also like to single out Rijk Zwaan, who generously took us out to dinner one night (all seed prices are set to rise) and then took the time to show us around many of the greenhouse establishments in Lemington. Thank you John Hughie, Gus Mastronardi and Roelf Schreuder, for your generous gift of time.

A big thank you to Graeme Smith, who worked tirelessly to make sure our days were filled with places of interest to visit. I can say with absolute conviction that there was not a lot of time to check out some of the really important venues (such as the department stores and specialty shops), but I did come away with a whole new perspective of this industry. I am sure that in the not too distant future, the progress I saw in Canada will be emulated here in Australia. Indeed, it is happening now.

I would also like to thank the Hydroponic Farmers Federation (HFF), who sponsored some of my trip. In the New Year, I will be giving a talk to some growers at a HFF grower meeting on some of the many interesting aspects of the Canadian hydroponic industry. I guarantee not to bore you all.

Finally, to my fellow travellers, Graeme and Jo Smith, Mark and Chris Millis, Horst Sjostedt, Anthony Brandsema (who helped with some of the information with this article), and Mark Lines, a big thank you. I enjoyed our sojourn together immensely.

About the author
Sue Korevaar is a greenhouse tomato grower based in Bittern, Victoria, and President of the Hydroponic Farmers Federation. Sue is also an Australian distributor of the Bloom Master Hanging Baskets and Planters, and a regular contributor to PH&G.

Issue 86: Laser Labelling

January/February – 2006
Author: Steven Carruthers

In-line Natural Light Label System – vertical installation.

Revolutionary new laser labelling technology now makes it possible to eliminate awkward adhesive labels on fruit and vegetables. The Natural Light Labelling System is able to etch barcodes, product codes, use-by dates, country-of-origin, logos and graphics on soft and hard skin produce. STEVEN CARRUTHERS writes that the new laser technology offers significant benefits for consumers, retailers, packers, and growers who want to distinguish their product.

(L to R): Damien Gibson, Andrew Keaney and John Scott from Natural Light Technology, NZ.

The revolutionary Natural Light Labelling System unveiled in Sydney at AUSPACK 2005 offers significant benefits for consumers, retailers, packers, as well as hydroponic and greenhouse growers who want to distinguish their product in the marketplace. The development of laser-labelling technology for fresh fruit and vegetables also coincides with mandatory country-of-origin labelling (COOL) regulations soon to be introduced in the United States, Australia and New Zealand. The Natural Light Labelling System, developed by US-based Durant-Wayland, is now being used for practical applications to label fresh fruit and vegetables in the United States and New Zealand. The main benefits of this technology are that it eliminates the use of difficult-to-remove adhesive labels, and it offers product traceability.

How does it work?
The Natural Light Labelling System has been specifically designed to easily integrate into and interface with existing pack-house equipment. The patented in-line laser equipment, which stands one metre high, facilitates printing on produce with precise control without degradation to the product. It does this in much the same way as a magnifying glass concentrates the sun’s rays, however laser technology is more precisely controlled, as it is in eye surgery.

The machine is typically installed horizontally above the packing line. For some installations this is not possible, and the machine is then placed vertically beside the line. However, a vertical installation is the exception rather than the rule. There is no difference in the machinery for a vertical as opposed to a horizontal installation, only the orientation of the machine itself and, of course, the mounting superstructure necessary to install it horizontally.

An in-line Natural Light Label System – horizontal installation.

A close-up view of a vertical installation used to label watermelons.

The Natural Light Label System is used to label watermelons at Coosaw Farms in South Carolina.

The precise control of emitted light removes the pigment layer from the surface of the produce to reveal a contrasting sub-layer. Because this removal process has been designed not to penetrate the surface or skin of the produce, it does not promote decay, reduce shelf-life, or deform the produce. In fact, if you run your finger across an etched label, you will not be able to feel it at all. The end result is sometimes referred to as a tattoo, however, the process is really the opposite of tattooing in that it removes pigment rather than adding it, and the process does not penetrate the skin whereas tattooing uses needles to penetrate the skin and inject dye.

The laser label can reflect the ‘Product Look-Up’ (PLU) code, country-of-origin, grower lot number, use-by date, barcode, or any other requested information. Not only is each piece of produce permanently coded, but the specific information can be stored electronically for any period of time.

The laser light printing process is environmentally friendly by using no consumables to label the produce.

The main features and benefits of the new laser technology are:

– Instant PLU change-over.
– Eliminates the high cost of adhesive labels.
– Eliminates consumer complaints with adhesive labels.
– No waste and very low energy costs.
– A ‘Green Product’. Favourable to the environment and consumer health.
– Capable of lot tracking, traceability, information gathering, etc.
– No consumables.
– Very low operational maintenance costs.
– Only one laser head per lane is required to meet information requirements.
– Requires no additional personnel to maintain constant operation.
– Packers no longer have to deal with inventory overheads, operational and maintenance costs that are associated with adhesive labels.
– Capable of marking produce that adhesive labels could not i.e. cucumbers.
– Capable of country-of-origin marking.
– Capable of programming in multiple languages.
– Can be used with existing pack-house equipment.
– Speed up to 14 pieces per second.
– All natural process that never comes into contact with the produce.

Laser technology only etches the outside skin of this cucumber product, offering a contrast of colours against which the laser label is etched.

Country-of-origin label requirements
The introduction of country-of-origin labelling regulations in the United States, Australia and New Zealand, makes this a timely technology. All produce in the United States is required to have a label identifying its country of origin no later than October 2006, with one year to comply. Depending on how the statute is interpreted, growers may not be allowed to sell any fruit without a label, including single pieces of fruit and vegetables.

Australia and New Zealand introduced mandatory country-of-origin regulations in late 2005 that provide consumers with clear and unambiguous information on the source of a food product, both packaged and unpackaged, including single pieces of fruit and vegetables. Like the United States, the food industry in Australia and NZ will have a phase-in period.

Whether or not COOL is made mandatory, the technology is still an attractive alternative to gummed labels.

Will customers buy etched fruit?
A consumer research study commissioned by Durand-Wayland in early 2004 covered four geographically dispersed US markets – Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Atlanta. The primary focus of the study was on apples, stone fruits and hard-skin fruits. A key finding from the study was that consumers don’t like sticker labels, which they found hard to remove, leave messy, unhealthy gum residue, and end up on the floor or stuck on the consumer.

Natural Light Label System installed at the Sunkist Ventura, California, facility.

When educated about laser labelling, consumers preferred it to the current labelling on edible skin/hard skin fruit and produce. Laser labels also mean no risk of biting or swallowing stickers, and less chance for contamination. For consumers, laser labelling will mean there will be no messy glue to wash off the fruit, and no chance of choking on an inedible piece of paper or plastic. Other benefits cited by consumers included environmentally friendly aspects, and the fact that produce can be traced.

Traceability is an important aspect because produce is perishable and it doesn’t come with a ‘use-by’ date. Now it will be possible to brand single produce quickly to not only identify where it has come from, but also with a use-by date under optimum storage conditions. Traceability also means contaminated or diseased fruit can be identified by batch numbers.

Will the consumer pay more for etched produce? Obviously, that will depend on the packer. However, the Natural Light Labelling System represents a cost savings to most packers.

What’s in it for retail outlets?
For most produce, and most applications, the percentage of produce that receives a label is well over 99% using the Natural Light Labelling System. The developer also reports the numbers are permanent, larger and easier to read than adhesive labels. For retail outlets, this means no more errors or time wasted at the checkout line because a cashier is confused about whether that tomato is hydroponic or organically grown. Laser-etched labels also overcome the problem of customers switching labels, thus eliminating losses from specialty produce being passed off as a cheaper variety.

There is also the cleanliness aspect. Laser labels mean no more problems with labels adhering to displays, checkout conveyors, floors, or other products. There are no longer any microbe-harbouring adhesive in the fresh produce area.

What’s in it for the packers?
Laser technology reduces the packer’s consumable costs for labels. It also eliminates the problem of adhesive labels that don’t adhere to the produce you are packing. They can end up everywhere – in your delicate machinery, in employees’ hair and clothing, on the bottom of your shoes. Remember, those labels that now decorate your packing house come at a cost. Also, there is the problem of storing this season’s left-over labels over the off season, only to find that the adhesive has deteriorated by the next season and the labels won’t adhere.

How you do like this scenario: All of your hard work has paid off in the shipment of some beautiful tomatoes. Trucks take it away to the wholesaler or agent who in turn sells it to retailers for consumers to enjoy. Then, you get a phone call from your agent. It turns out that only 71% of the fruit has labels on it. There was nothing wrong with your tomatoes; just the label.

There is no per piece cost with laser labelling technology. Maintenance and cleaning costs are also reduced dramatically. With fewer moving parts, the Natural Light labelling system is more reliable than conventional labelling machines. This means less down time working on equipment, changing reels, clearing jams, etc.

Another benefit of this technology is the virtual zero lead time required for one-time promotional logos. There is no investment in expensive inventory because labels can be customised quickly for individual retailers.

The Natural Light labelling system eliminates the high cost of adhesive labels with strong benefits for consumers, retailers, wholesalers, packers and growers. It is also an opportunity for hydroponic and greenhouse growers to distinguish their product in the market place. The introduction of mandatory country-of-origin regulations in the United States, Australia and New Zealand also makes the Natural Light Labelling System a timely and relatively inexpensive technology compared to conventional sticker-type equipment. A label that offers traceability and can be eaten safely, is good news for everyone.

For further information contact:
Natural Light Technology Ltd, PO Box 22 037, Otahuhu, Auckland, New Zealand
Ph: Fax: +64 (0)9 917-1472

About the author
Steven Carruthers is the Managing Editor of Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses, a bi-monthly magazine published in Sydney, Australia, and Vice-President of the Australian Hydroponics & Greenhouse Association (AHGA), Australia’s peak industry body. Steven is the recipient of the Australian Business and Specialist Publishers Association (ABSP) Bell Award for ‘Best Small Publisher of the Year’ in 1998, 2000 and 2001 and was highly commended in 1999. Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses is the recipient of the ABSP’s Bell Award for ‘Best Specialist Magazine of the Year’ in 2000 and 2001. Steven is also an affiliated member of the International Federation of the Periodical Press and author of several books including the bestseller, Hydroponic Gardening published by Lothian Press.

Issue 80: “Top of the Range” Truss Tomatoes

January/February – 2005
Author: Steven Carruthers

Work has started on the most technologically advanced greenhouse in Australia, expected to come on-line in September 2005. The new facility will be highly automated and deliver consistently high quality truss tomatoes to supermarkets along the east coast of Australia – all year round.

The NSW Minister for Regional Development, David Campbell, recently announced that construction has started in Guyra, NSW, on a $24 million glasshouse facility that will be the largest and most technologically advanced glasshouse in Australia. When complete, the 20ha (200,000sqm) growing facility, will supply high quality truss tomatoes to supermarkets from Melbourne to Brisbane, and employ up to 200 permanent fulltime and permanent seasonal staff recruited from the New England region.

“This is great news for the people and the economy of Guyra,” said David Campbell. “The project also has the potential to make Guyra a leader in horticultural development throughout the region,” he added.

Work begun on Stage 1 of the project in mid-November 2004 with the construction of a 5ha glasshouse and packing shed facility to be operational by May 2005 and harvesting by September 2005. Stage 2 will see the construction of a 5ha glasshouse extension, which will be operational by May 2006. This will be followed with the construction of a 10ha glasshouse with the timing to be determined by market conditions. When complete, the facility will be more than five times the size of the Melbourne or Sydney cricket grounds. According to the operator, Kos Fresh Produce, the development would happen much faster if Australia had the skilled human resources to manage the facility. As a result, the company recently recruited graduate horticulturists to undergo fully subsidised training for three months at a leading greenhouse establishment in Holland.

Kos Fresh Produce is part of the Costa Group, Australia’s leading private handler of fresh produce, managing over A$900 million worth of fresh produce per annum throughout Australasia. The company operates 18 business divisions ranging from fruit and vegetable production, wholesaling and retailing, export and import, pre-packing, logistics, contract procurement and quality management. The company employs nearly 900 people around Australia.

Kos Fresh produce is a joint venture between Michael Shadforth and the Costa Group of companies. It markets hydroponic tomatoes from a network of growers across Australia, as well as provides technical advice and support to help growers increase the quality and yield of their production. The Kos goal is to consistently supply high quality truss tomatoes to markets along the east coast of Australia all-year-round.

Kos Fresh Produce will be the outlet for the produce, which will be sold under the brand name “Top of the Range”. The Costa Group believe the new glasshouse facility will demonstrate to supermarkets and consumers alike that the greenhouse industry can reliably deliver a consistent, high quality truss tomato year-round. They believe the new facility will drive the growth of the industry forward, away from the current ‘high-low’ price situation that depends on what’s available.

Guyra was chosen as the site for Australia’s largest glasshouse facility because of its cool summer temperatures, and sufficient light levels to grow tomatoes through winter at a cost-effective price. Located 38km north of Armidale, 563km north-north-west of Sydney and 427km south-west of Brisbane, Guyra (population 2000) is the most elevated town on the New England Tablelands. The glasshouse business has been named “Top of the Range” because of its location on top of the Great Dividing Range at an altitude of 1320 metres.

While climate was the decisive factor, the company conducted extensive research which included an assessment of:

– the cost of transport of raw materials
– cost of transport of the finished product to market
– cost of labour
– effect of climate on yield
– cost of fuel for heating
– availability and cost of water
– availability and quality of labour
– government support.

According to the principal of KOS Fresh Produce, Mike Shadforth, the company based its major location priorities on overseas experiences. When European growers were asked what they would do differently, they pointed to climate as the major priority, and that was the approach the Costa Group took.

“I think we are the first group in Australia to look at where the best place is to grow tomatoes, and we worked back from there,” said Mike Shadforth.

Of those European growers studied by the Costa Group during the planning phase, they all pointed to size as another important consideration. Most had expanded to sizes that they didn’t dream they’d get to and had outgrown their sites quickly. The remote Guyra site is large enough to expand well into the future.

For the Costa Group, sufficient water supply was a bigger issue than indicated by European growers. “For a 20ha site, you need a minimum of 200 megalitres of good, clean water, and that’s hard to come by in Australia,” said Mike Shadforth.

The Guyra site will be supplied by on-site spring water that will be treated before use in the growing facility.

Another important location priority set by the Costa Group was a sustainable workforce, which will be recruited from the Guyra and Armidale regions. The closure of the local abattoir nine years ago is a big factor in the region’s high unemployment, and nearby New England University is expected to play an important role in skills training for future workers.

The NSW Government through the Department of State and Regional Development, and the Guyra City Council, have been highly supportive of the project, which was another critical reason why Guyra was chosen for this project.

Truss tomatoes are presented with their stems connected in the same way as grapes grow on a vine. Besides their deep red colour and near perfect appearance, the green stem gives off a tomato scent that consumers indentify with freshness. When the first tomato on the truss ripens, the fruit is left on the vine until the last fruit on that hand starts to ripen. Typically, there are 3-6 tomatoes on a truss.

To meet quality standards, the following guidelines have to be adhered to:

– All tomatoes on the truss must have colour so they are truly vine-ripened, allowing their full taste to develop.
– The tomatoes on the truss must be free of blemishes, spots and cuts.
– A truss consists of at least three tomatoes.

As the truss tomatoes are vine ripened, they develop their full taste, while the extended shelf-life of two to three weeks leaves very little loss due to fruit decay for the supermarkets.

Truss tomatoes are harder to grow because they can only be harvested when the last tomato starts ripening, thus making them truly vine-ripened. This could lead to the first tomato splitting or becoming over-ripe for growers with less experience, or poorly equipped greenhouses. There is some competition but most growers struggle to achieve the quality necessary as they do not have the necessary operational experience.

Truss tomatoes are almost impossible to grow in the field because of their delicate nature. Unsuitable weather patterns also means poor pollination and yields of poor quality trusses. The delay in harvesting, the difficulty in gassing, and the delay in ripening without a heating system are also obstacles for field growers to overcome. This is an important competitive advantage for glasshouse-grown truss tomatoes.

Packing Shed
One of the key features of the new facility is the location of the fully automated packing shed, which will be linked to the glasshouses. The ‘H’ design streamlines the flow of tomatoes, which will follow the central walkway in the glasshouse to the packing shed without having to go outside. State-of-the-art packing machinery will automatically unstack trays of tomatoes from the picking trolleys coming from the glasshouse, direct the trays through automatic conveyors, check and weigh product, then automatically palletise the trays ready for transport.

The picking trolleys will be self-powered and use an automatic guidance system to move between areas of the glasshouse and packing shed. The packing shed will also house a cool room, boiler room, irrigation room, lunch room with toilets, and office space.

Gutter Height
A unique feature of the Dutch-designed Van der Hoeven glasshouse will be the 6.3m gutter height, the highest in Australia. This is now the international standard for new glasshouses. According to the Greenhouse Manager, Godfrey Dol, even though Guyra is cool in winter, light intensity and summer temperatures at 30°C latitude from the equator can still be quite extreme and there will be a tendency of heat build-up inside the glasshouse.

Godfrey Dol has over 20 years experience growing greenhouse products in the Middle East, North America and Australia. From his experiences, he said that taller greenhouses consistently stay much cooler. He believes that while a 6.3m gutter height may seem extremely high at this point in time, future greenhouses will be even taller.

“To get cooling in the greenhouse you need proper air movement with plenty of air around the crop. If you have enough air above and underneath the crop, there’s better air circulation in the greenhouse and it doesn’t heat up as much and as quickly, and you don’t need as much ventilation,” said Godfrey Dol.

The Dutch-born grower said that the ventilation capacity of the glasshouse is very important in the summer months and the only cost-efficient means of cooling is through air exchange with the outside air, which will be achieved by computer-controlled roof vents on both sides of the peak of the glasshouse.

Heating System
The heating system will be from gas and coal-fired boilers, which will provide heat to plants during cold weather and dehumidify in humid weather. The heating pipes double as railway tracks for picking trolleys. Flue gas from the gas boilers will be injected into the glasshouse to enrich the atmosphere with CO2. Levels of CO2 and CO will be monitored and controlled by a computer.

Growing System
There are no surprises in the hanging gutter growing system, now considered the standard system for growing truss tomatoes to maximise light, air movement around plants and plant yields. The grower does not plan to inter-plant in the first year of production to minimise potential pest and disease problems. Godfrey Dol predicts a yield of 50kg/sqm in the first year, and the potential for 60kg/sqm in subsequent years.

“There is enough light in Guyra to grow through the winter to get yields that are substantially high enough without increasing the cost of production,” explains Godfrey Dol. “Theoretically, there is enough light to inter-plant and continue yielding 12-months of the year. It’s a big investment and that’s an option,” he added.

Irrigation System
The fertiliser injection and irrigation frequency is computer controlled. The irrigation system will have many features that allow irrigation to continue even when pipes are broken or a pump unit is not operational. Once the glasshouse is fully established, the run-off water from the growing slabs and from rainwater will be sterilised and re-used, reducing both water and fertiliser costs. The grower does not plan to recirculate in the first year of operation, again, to minimise potential disease problems.

The grower’s approach to integrated pest management (IPM) strategies highlights the technological gap in greenhouse production between Australia and other countries with developed greenhouse industries. Australia does not have the same inventory of beneficial insects to control all the pests that can affect a tomato crop compared to overseas, because of Australia’s unique biodiversity and strict quarantine regulations.

“My advice has always been towards biological control, but we don’t have enough tools there to guarantee that we’re going to make it to the end of the line,” said Godfrey Dol. “We will certainly start off biologically, but I can not eliminate the possibility of having to use sprays.”

Godfrey said the industry is not big enough to warrant enough research funding so that we can have enough beneficials.

“I appreciate the problems producers of natural predator insects have because it’s such a small market and it’s a huge outlay to get even one successful insect working in the greenhouse. It’s a big problem, and one that needs an industry approach,” he said.

On bumblebees for pollination, it is the grower’s view that Australia needs to get bumblebees if it ever hopes to match European and New Zealand production yields. “Here we are, 15 years after bumblebees were first used in Holland, and we still can’t use them,” laments Godfrey.

Godfrey highlights that even with bumblebee technology, Australia needs a full program of biological insects to avoid using sprays that will also kill bees. “Once you need to use sprays, all biocontrol and bee pollination programs go out the window,” he said.

Currently, the Australian greenhouse industry is in its infancy. The industry is characterised by small producers with less than a hectare (10, 000sqm), mostly under plastic. Of the 243ha of protected cropping, only about 40ha are high technology glasshouses. However, the greenhouse market, particularly tomatoes, is on the verge of expanding dramatically. This is being driven by three factors:

– Consumer demand for greenhouse products arising from increasing affluent, discerning and health conscious consumers;
– Production has reached or is reaching critical mass, allowing the development of dedicated marketing chains, specialised marketers and stocking of product by major supermarket chains;
– Supermarkets are looking for increased opportunity to provide customers with innovative, high quality and attractive products.

In the European market, truss tomatoes (also known as ‘Tomatoes on the Vine’) established themselves in a relatively short period of 7-10 years. The same thing happened in the US market;and initial response to truss tomatoes indicate the same will happen in Australia.

Despite the construction of large greenhouse projects such as “Top of the Range”, smaller growers will still play an important role in the market. Many of these small growers produce good yields and excellent quality tomatoes, and Kos Fresh Produce will continue to work with these growers to build a strong and vibrant base for hydroponic tomatoes. This market assessment is also supported by overseas trends.

“We see places like New Zealand where the small growers drive the industry,” said Mike Shadforth. “We think low technology greenhouses are going to be our biggest problem in the market because they have low inputs, chop from other crops to tomatoes, and don’t have a business plan or formal business structure,” he added.

For those growers who turned to greenhouse tomato production as a semi-retirement or retirement plan, Mike believes the changing market environment will create opportunities as the demand and range of high quality greenhouse tomato products grow.

“Supermarkets don’t want to see $8.99 truss tomatoes any more,” said Mike Shadforth.

“They’d rather run them at a price where they continually sell, but they don’t have the confidence in the greenhouse industry to deliver because of consistency and quality problems,” he explains.

He said that supermarkets and consumers see quality variation in greenhouse tomatoes which range from very good to really poor. He points to problems where the truss won’t set properly, or the heat brings on smaller tomatoes as the reasons why the industry can not deliver a consistent, high quality product all-year-round. He cites the ‘high-low’ marketing situation for the industry’s poor reputation.

Prices are highest in September and October because of the lack of tomatoes from the field. Prices then level out with February, March and April as the most consistent months. Mike Shadforth believes the industry needs to produce a consistent, high quality truss tomato year-round to restore supermarket and consumer confidence in hydroponic greenhouse tomatoes and the “Top of the Range” facility will help overcome this important industry issue.

There is also a concern that a lack of consistency or quality, or a large enough hole in the supply chain brought about by growers switching crops or leaving the industry, will invite aggressive overseas competition in the Australian market.

“Our biggest problem will be that we can’t grow quick enough to keep them out of our market,” said Mike Shadforth. “If we can get on a constant, be prepared to grow consistent, high quality truss tomatoes year-round, and other growers invest in their operation, then we will have a strong and dynamic industry,” he said.

For the moment, it appears Dutch growers are not interested in filling gap markets;rather, they are looking for consistent, year-round opportunities. Dutch growers are currently fetching 15 Euros/kg for their tomatoes, or around A$0.21/kg. While the cost of shipping to the antipodes may be a repellent for Dutch growers, this situation could change if big enough gaps appear in the Australian market.

Godfrey Dol is Dutch-born Greenhouse Manager who has grown tomatoes for 20 years in the Middle East, North America and Australia. When the greenhouse industry first kicked off in Australia around 10 years ago, a group of investors got together and built what was then known as the Bundaberg Tomato Company. At that time, Godfrey frequently visited Australia with his Australian-born wife and kept in touch with the progress of the industry. When the Bundaberg Tomato Company failed, some of the shareholders bought the company and contacted Godfrey to invite him to work for them. Godfrey accepted the challenge, leaving a successful 16ha greenhouse operation operated by Village Farms in the United Kingdom (see PH&G July/August 1993 – Issue #11).

His first encounter with anyone in terms of Australian conditions was saying he wanted to put a heating system in the Bundaberg greenhouse. Although his approach was met with some scepticism, the shareholders stuck with him. In the first year the greenhouse broke even. Given that they had already lost a bucket of money, the shareholders were impressed and for the next seven years the greenhouse operation rewarded the shareholders with substantial profits. Today, the Bundaberg farm has expanded to 3ha.

Godfrey sees his move to the “Top of the Range” facility as an opportunity to realise his dream to manage the most technologically advanced glasshouse in Australia.

Issue 75: Hydroponics:A Viable Alternative to Methyl Bromide

March/April – 2004
Author: Christine Paul

With the impending worldwide ban on the use of methyl bromide, can hydroponic technology offer acceptable, solutions in temrs of both economic and environmentally friendly alternatives?

Until recently, methyl bromide – a highly effective fumigant used to control insects, nematodes, weeds, and pathogens in more than 100 crops, in forest andornamental nurseries, and in wood products – has been used on a large-scale worldwide for soil fumigation, post-harvest protection, and quarantine treatments.

In the US alone, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 13.3 million pounds of methyl bromide were used in Florida croplands between 1995 and 1996. In 1995, tomatoes were planted on approximately 40,000 acres of Florida farmland, and an estimated 94% of this acreage was treated with methyl bromide at a rate of 142.5 pounds per acre.

However, under the Montreal Protocol of 1991, methyl bromide has been defined as a chemical that contributes to the depletion of the Earth’s ozone layer. The bromines that it contains are 50 times more destructive to ozone than chlorine (e. g. from CFCs).

Additionally, it has been shown that people risk exposure to methyl bromide used in agriculture, which can result in harmful effects to the lungs, throat, eyes, skin, central nervous system and respiratory system. Fumigation exposure also leads to pain in the chest, nausea, dizziness, numbness, and weakness in the extremities. To date, at least 20 people have died in the US as a direct result of methyl bromide exposure.

Under the Montreal Protocol, the subsequent phase-out of methyl bromide was agreed to by 183 countries. The manufacture and importation of methyl bromide phase-out in developed countries is as follows:25% reduction in 1999, 25% reduction in 2001, 20% reduction in 2003, with complete phase out reached by 1 January 2005. In developing countries, consumption was frozen in 2002 at 1995-98 average levels, followed by a 20% reduction in 2005 and complete phase-out in 2015. Exemptions for both developed and developing countries include quarantine, critical uses, and certain pre-shipment uses.

According to model analysis, the loss of methyl bromide will have significant impacts on producers and consumers of crops that currently rely on it as a soil fumigant. Methyl bromide allows the US to remain competitive with Mexico, which relies upon the labour intensive, but relatively less expensive option, of hiring workers to pull weeds from planting beds.

Unless viable alternatives are found, it is feared US farmers and other users in developed countries will be at a disadvantage when competing with agricultural products produced in developing countries where methyl bromide will continue to be available for several years after the US phase-out.

In search of alternatives
According to the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the research arm of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), finding a viable solution for methyl bromide is proving no easy matter. “There is no single alternative fumigant, chemical, or technology that can readily substitute for methyl bromide in efficacy, low cost, ease of use, wide availability, worker safety, and environmental safety below the ozone layer, ” states one finding.

Research by the USDA indicates that multiple alternative control measures will be required to replace the many essential uses of methyl bromide.

Notwithstanding, a groundswell is occurring among many growers as well as scientists and researchers in support of finding workable, safe alternatives.

One such instance is that of Professor Rodrigo Rodriguez-Kabana from the Entomology and Plant Pathology, Auburn University in Alabama, US, who has reformulated a chemical used as the triggering agent in automobile airbags into an environmentally friendly pesticide replacement for methyl bromide. Professor Kabana has indicated that this could be available to the market, for a limited number of crops, as early as the 2004 growing season.

For pre-plant uses, alternative measures include combinations of fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides;other fumigants;and nonchemical alternatives, including changes in cropping systems, resistant crops, and biological control.

The Florida model
With the imminent loss of methyl bromide, overall total Florida tomato production is predicted to decrease 2.4% and total shipping point revenues are predicted to decrease $68.1 million According to a recent USDA report:”Mexican-produced tomatoes are expected to gain significant market share with shipping point revenues increasing by $51.5 million. Total US strawberry production is expected to decrease by 35.3%, with wholesale price increasing by 9.4% and Mexico gaining a minimum of 10% market share. Overall summary of model output indicates that if low impacts are realised (5 to 10% yield loss), then shipping point revenue losses of $179.5 million in Florida and $143.7 million in California can be expected. ” A small group of University of Florida scientists, in 1995, gathered to look at future alternatives to methyl bromide research efforts within the State. Additionally, their aim was to draft a long-term, five-year research project proposal for possible USDA-ARS funding. The USDA provided annual funding from 1996-2001 and this was used to initiate field-scale demonstration/validation studies at multiple sites within the major crop producing regions of Florida as well as to support small-plot field research trials at various locations across the State. In total, 54 projects, involving 21 University of Florida and USDA scientists, were separately funded during the five-year grant period.

Researchers investigated different substances and production systems to control weeds, pests, and diseases, predictably, with varying results. These included alternative fumigants, herbicides, biorationals, application techniques, resistant plants, solarisation, cover cropping, organic amendments, flooding, and crop rotation.

Results from the studies showed that regardless of alternative chemical or application method, pest control efficacy for all the fumigant alternatives is generally a little less than that of methyl bromide and more highly dependent upon uniform delivery and distribution.

Says University of Florida researcher, Joseph Noling:”Unlike methyl bromide, prevailing soil and climactic conditions before and after fumigant application are much more important determinants of efficacy and crop response with alternative chemicals”. It is also apparent that growers can cause significant crop response variability through inappropriate land preparation or substandard application procedures. ” Performance of fumigant and herbicide alternatives to methyl bromide, such as Telone products and chloropicrin, have been identified and studied under USDA/ARS-funded research. “However, the culmination of this research has also demonstrated that satisfactory yield responses probably can’t be consistently achieved in every field or in every season as equivalent to that of methyl bromide,” says Noling. “As a result, growers must learn to expect some disease, some loss, and recognise that some inconsistency is unavoidable. The biggest continuing challenge facing the scientific community in Florida is developing and improving alternatives, which further minimise the 5-10% impacts on yield for each of the methyl bromide-dependent crops.” Clearly, with the cut-off date for use of methyl bromide looming, time is running out, however, at this stage there has been no single technology breakthrough in the hunt for alternatives.

The case for hydroponics
According to a recent EPA report, Hydroponics and Soilless Cultures on Artificial Substrates as an Alternative to Methyl Bromide Soil Fumigation, the use of hydroponic technology can prove a viable alternative to methyl bromide soil fumigation for greenhouse grown tomatoes, strawberries, cucumbers, peppers, eggplants, and some flowers. “Hydroponics allows crop culturing without soil fumigation by providing a system where a majority of plant needs are met by mixing water soluble nutrients with water, and eliminating requirements for soil”. The advantages of hydroponic or soilless cultures on artificial substrates are:

– an absence of competing weeds, soilborne pests and toxic residues;
– water conservation (with recycling systems, hydroponic systems use one-tenth the amount of water used in irrigated agriculture);
– conditions that can be altered quickly to suit specific crops, various growth stages, and environmental/climate conditions.

Other benefits of hydroponics, as noted in the report, include:the system’s ability to bring fresh oxygen to the root zone and to take away “off-gases”;the facilitation of more efficient root systems;the ability to grow plants closer together than normally, thus producing more agricultural product per given area, while avoiding competition for scarce nutrients in the root zone.

Bob Hochmuth, a vegetable expert with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, is a strong advocate of the use of hydroponics as a suitable alternative to methyl bromide, especially for high-value crops such as tomatoes, coloured bell peppers, cucumbers, Bibb lettuce, herbs and strawberries. “Soilless agriculture is not the wave of the future, it’s already here, ” he says. “It makes sense to move production of some high-value crops out of the soil altogether. In fact, some growers are desperately looking for alternatives to growing crops outdoors in disease-infested soils, and they’re turning to greenhouse production and soilless growing mediums, commonly known as hydroponics. All plant nutrients are supplied in the irrigation water. ” Currently, it is estimated that there are now more than 70 acres of crops under protective cover while more growers are looking at growing their crops outdoors in hydroponic systems.

According to Hochmuth, although hydroponics is a more expensive way to grow crops, there are many advantages, especially with crops like tomatoes and strawberries. “Growers can sell tomatoes for $2 to $3 per pound, and the cost of producing greenhouse hydroponic vegetables ranges from $2 to $15 per square foot, ” he said. “But those higher costs can be offset by higher production – up to 10 times higher than field-grown produce. ” Extended marketing seasons are another big advantage with greenhouse hydroponic crops. Also, because they are not subjected to the usual insect pests, weather conditions, and other types of damage, greenhouse crops have a better appearance generally, optimising both consumer appeal and higher prices for growers.

Hydroponic strawberry production
Strawberry growers worldwide fumigate the soil with methyl bromide before planting to control soilborne insect pests, diseases, and weeds. This fumigation is seen as essential to obtain high yields and high-quality fruit.

Recently, as reported in PH&G (Issue 69), strawberry plasticulture growers in both Florida and California, as well as the seven-state, south-eastern Strawberry Consortium, have applied to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for “Critical Use Exemption” to continue to use methyl bromide.

The consortium argues that despite massive amounts of money and time being spent to find a methyl bromide replacement, adequate alternatives have still not been identified for strawberry plasticulture growers in the south-east.

Fumiomi Takeda, an ARS horticulturist at Kearneysville, US, however, is taking a positive approach and investigating the use of hydroponics as a viable alternative to methyl bromide. “With the fast approaching ban on use of this chemical, growers are anxiously looking for alternatives. It is estimated that banning methyl bromide will cut in half the annual production of field-grown strawberries in California and Florida, our major producing states, ” he says. “But growing strawberries hydroponically eliminates the need for methyl bromide on this crop, ” he adds, During research trials of hydroponic production of strawberries, Takeda controlled the few foliage pests with natural agents. “Two-spotted spider mites, thrips, and powdery mildew were the major problems we encountered in our greenhouse production of strawberries. We used beneficial predatory mites to control the thrips and two-spotted mites. The mildew problem can be resolved by moderating the humidity level in the greenhouse and by growing varieties that resist mildew infection, ” he said.

Ripe fruit from hydroponically grown plants were harvested twice a week from December to May, the period when shipments of California strawberries slow down. Both fruit quality and taste were excellent. “Although initial set-up costs for hydroponic farming are high, growers may recoup that cost by producing a higher value product, increasing yields, and spending less money to control pests and diseases, ” says Takeda. “Our research demonstrated that two California strawberry varieties can be grown by soilless means. However, we need more research to measure the performance of other strawberry varieties and to investigate the influence of plant type – plug, fresh-dug, dormant, or single or multiple crown, as well as planting dates. ” In Dover, Hillsborough, US, University of Florida Extension Agent Eric Waldo, together with horticulturist John Duval, is working on a research and demonstration project to examine how well strawberries grow outdoors in bags filled with perlite and other inorganic growing media. “So far, the results have been encouraging, with higher yield from plants in bags of perlite than from regular soil-grown plants, ” says Waldo. “Essentially, what we’re doing is growing strawberries in an outdoor hydroponic system, supplying all the nutrients in irrigation water. The bags of perlite provide an inorganic growing medium for plant roots, but the perlite has no nutrients or any of the harmful organisms that typically infest regular soil. ” Balanced against the higher cost of using perlite bags, is the expense spared to the grower of costs associated with methyl bromide soil fumigation and herbicides for weed control.

In the Netherlands, formerly one of Europe’s largest users of methyl bromide for the fumigation of strawberries and many other crops, growers are successfully using hydroponic production, eliminating risk of infestation by soilborne pests, and at the same time increasing crop yield and quality. There are approximately 2,072 ha of strawberries grown in the Netherlands, with 1993 production of strawberries at roughly 31, 000 tonnes. Almost half of this total was from greenhouse production.

Peat bags are primarily used in the production of greenhouse strawberries and to cultivate new runners. To stimulate bud formation, young plants are exposed to short-day lighting and then placed in greenhouse substrates or outdoors to fruit. Alternatively, they are stored for up to eight months at -2°C in a dormant state awaiting flower development. During warmer weather, mature plants may produce strawberries within 60 days without the use of methyl bromide or any other type of soil fumigant.

The work that has been achieved in the phasing out of methyl bromide in the Netherlands and the alternatives developed, particularly in the hydroponic sphere, has not only allowed the development of a number of economic and environmental advantages, but also provides an important model for other countries to follow.

Economic viability of hydroponics
According to the EPA report, hydroponics is an economically viable alternative to methyl bromide fumigation for a number of crops, including strawberries and cucumbers (See Tables 1a and 1b). The report states the following: “Although materials and total costs are higher for hydroponic systems compared to methyl bromide fumigation, operating costs are generally lower (except for double crops of strawberries), and overall crop yields far exceed those obtained with methyl bromide. “In general, strawberry and cucurbit yields using artificial substrates are double those obtained using soil. In fact, production on one greenhouse acre is equivalent to that on six to ten field acres with long-term production costs being much lower (Rosselle, 1996). Adjusting costs ($/kg yield) to take into account crop yield, renders costs comparable to that of methyl bromide fumigation.

Furthermore, hydroponics costs are expected to decrease as sales continue to increase and these systems become more commercialised (Rossell USDA, 1996). ” Other cost advantages of hydroponics include a potentially fast and flexible hydroponic cropping period, which allows growers to quickly change production to take advantage of market conditions. Because of the short cropping period (four months total) and the development of cold storage techniques, growers can increase or decrease production depending on prices, or select alternative crops if crop prices are not favourable. Findings from the Methyl Bromide Task Force, 1995, indicated that by marketing produce when prices are at a premium, growers can pay off initial capital investments in as little as three years.

The EPA report also makes mention of the fact that Dutch growers have already reported a 10 to 20% increase in cash income with the use of these artificial substrates.

Another important advantage offered by hydroponic technology is that growers have the option of “double cropping” to produce two crops per year from one planting, unlike conventional crops. This effectively halves the cost of crop establishment.

Australia’s approach
In 1997, Australia imported 1, 031 tonnes of methyl bromide, largely from the US, Europe and Israel. More than half of this quantity (679 tonnes) was used primarily as a soil fumigant in horticultural indus-tries, with small quantities used for structural and durable commodity fumigation. The remaining 352 tonnes was use for quarantine and pre-shipment purposes, as recognised by the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS) to prevent the introduction of new pests and diseases between regions within Australia.

Under the Commonwealth Ozone Protection Act 1989, importers of methyl bromide are required to hold a “Controlled Substances Licence”, which restricts the quantities that they can import. Reductions in the quantities of methyl bromide imported are to be implemented in line with the Montreal Protocol phase-out schedule.

Gratifyingly enough, according to the latest issue of the National Methyl Bromide Update, recent studies have shown that bromine levels in the stratosphere are beginning to decline due to international restrictions on methyl bromide and halon use.

These studies, by Dr Paul Fraser of CSIRO Atmospheric Research, have given an Australian perspective to the MB phase-out with results indicating a 25% reduction in the quantity of MB in the Melbourne atmosphere since1998, consistent with the reduction in emissions based on consumption data. This study shows that the effort by Australian industry and researchers to phase out this harmful product is making a difference!

As is the case in many other developed countries, Australia’s horticultural producers are under increasing pressure to supply clean, high quality food at competitive prices. However, unlike its US counterpart, for example, Australian horticulture remains largely characterised by small-scale independent growers. For many of these growers, trying to reconcile the growing demand for their produce with the necessity of phasing out methyl bromide, a chemical on which many have been dependent for almost 20 years, is creating a Catch-22 situation.

Within Australia’s diverse climatic environment, no individual chemical of the current range of alternative fumigants available, has similar, ‘across the board’ efficacy as that of methyl bromide.

In search of suitable alternatives, one Victorian grower, Vince Sorace, Secretary of the Victorian Strawberry Growers’ Association, has been trialling Telone C-35 over the last two years.

Telone C-35, a soil fumigant from Dow AgroSciences that is used against fungal diseases, weeds and nematodes in many horticultural crops, including strawberries, melons, vegetables, and cut flowers, does not deplete ozone. Telone C-35 is made up of two chemicals: telone, a nematicide, and chloropicrin, a fungicide.

In 2001, Mr Sorace first trialled the product on about 5% of his plantings. Results achieved were encouraging. “We trialled it on about 7,000 selva plants, using the label rates of 350 to 700 litres/hectare. It was a fair size trial. . . but I’d also read a lot of the literature – particularly on the Internet from the United States – and all the trials and farmer experiences were positive. “We saw no difference whatsoever between MB treatments in previous years and the Telone C-35,” says Mr Solace. “Production was good, as were weed and disease control – with no plant losses.” Alan Shanks from the Department of Primary Industries, Victoria, says that grower trials like these, together with research projects, have helped to identify both advantages and disadvantages of the main fumigant alternatives. It’s important for growers to at least trial the alternatives they are considering. They are different to methyl bromide, they react differently, and in some cases, are applied differently, so people need to become familiar with them. This will give them the confidence to shift.

The National Methyl Bromide Response Strategy
The past two years, in particular, have witnessed a major acceleration of government funding to research bodies in search of alternatives to methyl bromide.

Recently, the National Methyl Bromide Response Strategy was produced by the Methyl Bromide Consultative Group in consultation with government, chemical companies and industry representatives, to address the impact of the phase-out of methyl bromide on Australian horticulture, which may prove to be significantly more complex than that of other ozone depleting substances (such as CFCs).

In its Executive Summary, the strategy states:”Australian horticulture cannot rely on a ‘drop-in’ replacement to be developed by multi-national chemical companies as occurred during the CFC phase-out. Similarly, it should not be assumed that the current exemptions for quarantine and pre-shipment uses would be indefinite.” At this stage, it is critical that affected horticultural industries apply one of the most important lessons of Australia’s CFC phase-out experience;that a pro-active approach to the phase-out will avoid or minimise potential adverse impacts on crop production. This Strategy seeks to provide a framework to enable users to take a proactive approach to the phase-out of methyl bromide. ” The strategy divides alternative measures into short, mid and long-term approaches. Under the classification of ‘long-term’ are:Integrated Pest and Disease Management; crop rotation; the use of organic amendments and biological controls;plant breeding programs;soil steaming and other methods of soil heating, e.g. Ohmic heating;tissue culture;soilless culture;and hydroponics.

The following excerpt from the Strategy looks at hydroponic production in the light of an alternative to methyl bromide: “Overseas experience indicates that it is technically feasible to produce some crops, such as strawberry runners, tomatoes and cucurbits, using tissue culture techniques and hydroponics instead of soil. The trend overseas is towards protected cultivation/soilless culture as productivity increases and land previously fully utilised becomes available for other high value crops not dependent on methyl bromide. “In Victoria, there are many carnation growers that have switched completely to the use of scoria beds rather than soil, and have no need to use methyl bromide. The production of nuclear, foundation and mother stock runners for the strawberry industry is suited to production in artificial substrates. ”

Summary and conclusion
With the rapidly approaching deadline for the discontinuation of methyl bromide as a soil fumigant, the race is on to find suitable, environmentally friendly and cost-effective alternatives.

There is no one alternative for the uses of methyl bromide, however, there are several effective combinations of control tools, and in some cases, alternatives require some changes to production systems, or a combination of approaches to control pests.

Since no single technology is available, a likely replacement is an Integrated Pest Management approach involving a combination of preventative techniques and alternative control mechanisms. These options also include hydroponics.

Hydroponics technology is out of the soil and brings with it biological control and Integrated Pest Management strategies that efficiently produce high quality, safe food for consumer consumption without the use of harmful chemicals.

In the words of Marvin Brown, president of BBI Produce Inc, Dover, US, one of the country’s largest grower and shipper of fresh strawberries:”-with no viable replacement in sight, soilless alternatives deserve serious attention. Advancements in technology and growing techniques will undoubtedly increase our desire and ability to use alternative production methods that are both economical and ecologically acceptable to all. “