Posts Tagged ‘ tomatoes ’

Katunga Fresh

When it came to moving their family and hydroponic growing operation to Australia, native Hollanders Peter Van der Goor and his wife Marjan didn’t hesitate. Today the Van der Goors run Katunga Fresh, a succesful tomato growing operation in Victoria’s Goulburn Valley.

Maryborough Magic

The Hydroponic Farmers Federation growers’ meeting in Maryborough Victoria at the home of Alma Hydroponics. Run by farmer Ian Mortlock and his wife Wendy, Alma Hydroponics is an enterprise 10 years in the making and an exemplary hands-on hydroponics operation.

Murphy Fresh A Glass Act

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

Kumato consumption

Tomato is a worldwide crop and people are eating more and more tomatoes. Why? Because companies such as Moraitis are delivering tomatoes with taste! Two great examples of this have been the partnership of Moraitis Tomatoes and Syngenta to deliver to market the Kumato® and later on the mini or Grape Kumato®. With an exceptional eating profile driving sales for both of these products, Moraitis has doubled production every year since they were introduced and this coming season will be no different.

To keep up with the ever-growing demand the regular Kumato has doubled in hectares of production since its introduction almost 4 years ago and demand continues to outstrip supply. The Grape Kumato, the smaller ‘snack’ version, has doubled production this season and production will double again this coming summer planting season.

“Expectations are that Kumato consumption and consumer awareness will continue to drive the need for more production area going forward. Kumato is now a worldwide brand and Moraitis have been very proud to be an innovator in the Southern Hemisphere,” says Matthew McInerney, National Category Manager-Hydroponics for Moraitis.

“Growth of both of these products has been phenomenal and proves that the consumer clearly is looking for a taste experience and Kumato delivers a truly authentic flavour that is both ‘unique and intense’,” he said

For more information on Kumato go to

Issue 109: Think Pink

November/December 2009
By Christine Paul

Commercial release of hydroponically produced and field grown

Pink Pearl cherry tomatoes is set to aid breast cancer research.

Established in 1994 to consolidate leading seed companies into a global research, production and marketing platform, Seminis – a prominent global fruit and vegetable seed organisation – was subsequently acquired by the Monsanto company in 2005. It offers growers more than 3,000 seed varieties representing 25 crops.

The company also operates 51 research and product development stations in 17 countries. In particular, Seminis has prioritised the development and cataloguing of ‘germplasm’ – the hereditary information stored in seeds – to date, preserving around 1.5 million breeding lines.

Last year, Seminis announced the Australian release of its unique Pink Pearl cherry tomatoes to directly benefit the National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF).

Seminis Vegetable Seeds Western Australia manager, John McBride, said the world’s first commercial release of Pink Pearl cherry tomatoes presented a “good fit” for a corporate partnership with the Australian charity due to their name and colour.

“Globally, Seminis is involved in many community-based projects but this particular concept is a first. We had to meet key criteria throughout the process including traceability and charity legislation requirements,” John says. “Pink Pearl cherry tomatoes meet all these objectives and we are confident they will both raise vital funds for breast cancer research and help Seminis achieve a significant share of the cherry tomato market.

“Seed companies like Seminis are always looking for an edge – produce that increases consumer uptake because of its great flavour, achieves good returns for the growers and lifts the status of fruit and vegetables in general.”

The Pink Pearl tomato is sold in markets in packaging displaying the pink ribbon, the internationally recognisable symbol of breast cancer awareness and research. Although breast cancer awareness is particularly high in the month of October (Breast Cancer Month), the tomatoes will be sold year-round.

NBCF Head of Fundraising, Libby O’Neill, congratulated Seminis on their continued support of the NBCF through the sale of their Pink Pearl cherry tomatoes.

“The Pink Pearl cherry tomatoes help raise funds for the NBCF’s research programs into the prevention and cure of breast cancer – including the benefits of a healthy lifestyle and exercise recovery programs for women in remote and rural areas, research that benefits everyone from the grower to the consumer,” Ms O’Neill says.

”The Pink Pearl cherry tomatoes also help bring greater awareness of our cause into regional areas where the tomatoes are grown. The more awareness raised, the better the outcomes for the early detection of breast cancer.

Plus, with The World Cancer Research Fund recommending a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, in addition to being physically active, to help prevent cancer, purchasing a punnet of Pink Pearl cherry tomatoes means shoppers are not only contributing to their own good health but to research that will benefit women everywhere,” Ms O’Neill said.

“The agreement with the NBCF ensures the Pink Pearl will always be sold in punnets displaying the Pink Ribbon, and assures selected growers they have the opportunity to grow an exceptional variety while supporting the NBCF,” John McBride adds.

Pearler of a tomato
Pink Pearl cherry tomatoes are grown both in soil and hydroponically under protective structures in Australia’s key growing regions of Virginia, South Australia, and Carnavon, West Australia. The tomatoes are also under growing trials in Tasmania, Victoria and Queensland in an attempt to guarantee year-round availability.

Ben Hoodless, Business Development Manager for Seminis says that both John McBride and Seminis SA Territory Manager, Paul Pezzaniti, were behind screening trials of the Pink Pearl, playing key roles in its development in WA and SA

“They recognised the commercial potential of the product early on. Right now we are still very much in the developmental phase, however, going forward we are seeking to take a national focus and maximise availability of the product on a nationwide basis as soon as possible,” Ben says.

So how did the Pink Pearl originate?
“The Pink Pearl cherry tomato was developed out of a joint effort between our Korean and Italian tomato breeders,” John McBride says. “This sharing of material through traditional breeding systems has resulted in a product with the best of both programs. An attractive fruit with superb colour and flavour makes the Pink Pearl tomato unique.”

Because of their small size and durability, the Pink Pearl, like other cherry tomatoes, can be used in salads and dishes where they are eaten whole, such as in kebabs or finger foods. Although conventional cherry tomatoes won’t yield the thick slices to top a sandwich like traditional varieties do, they are often sought out because they are described as sweeter and fruitier-tasting than the full-sized versions.

“In Asia, pink tomatoes are commonplace,” adds Ben Hoodless. “For the Australian market we sought to develop a product that still retained the pink colour and sweetness but at the same time had a superior firmness factor, which the Pink Pearl has.”

The vine-ripened, glossy and distinctively crimson-pink cherry tomatoes are being sold by the punnet in selected Foodland stores in South Australia and IGA stores in Western Australia.

P’Petual Hydroponics
One grower of the Pink Pearl cherry tomato is Andrew Potter from P’Petual Hydroponics, one of the largest suppliers of premium quality hydroponic tomatoes in Australia, with a staff of around 45. The farm is based in Virginia on the Adelaide Plains, 26km north of Adelaide, SA, and features six growing compartments on 6 hectares.

Besides the Pink Pearl, the company also grows other varieties of tomato, including Truss (their biggest line), Kumato, Cherry and Cocktail. It also produces mini cucumbers, popular with consumers for their sweetness as snacks.

“We are still in trial stages with the Pink Pearl,” Andrew says. “We started off earlier this year with 20 plants with seeds from Seminis then increased to around 600 plants. Basically, the time from seed to tomato is around 14 to 15 weeks.

P’Petual has three greenhouses (twin-skin plastic), each with an area space of 20,000 square metres, and a floor to gutter ratio of 4 metres. Each greenhouse is equipped with the latest specialised equipment and software.

“We use a Priva Integro Environment Computer system to control the environmental factors in the greenhouses such as heating systems, fogging, irrigation systems, water and plant nutrition,” Andrew says.

“The Pink Pearls are grown in truss and we irrigate by a drip system using a dripper line. We use rockwool as a medium for the tomatoes and keep the temperature at around 20° Celsius.

P’Petual implements IPM to control pests in greenhouses. Natural predators are introduced to minimise the use of chemicals.

“We use Encarsia for whitefly, Montdorensis for thrips and Persimilis for spider mite,” Andrew says.

Tomato packaging is done on the farm and not outsourced to any external packing houses.

“Once the tomatoes have fruited we pick them in the greenhouse and move them to the cool room where they’re shipped out in less than 48 hours,” he says. “Our Quality Control Officer thoroughly checks tomatoes before the tomatoes are delivered to our customers.”

The company is fully HACCP SQF 1 2000, WQA and Coles certified and is regularly audited by and external source.

Currently P’Petual supplies both locally and interstate.

“We supply Pink Pearl to SA Foodland outlets and we are also currently looking at expanding into other markets. By this time next year we are hoping to have substantially increased our yield.”

Meanwhile the NBCF’s Libby O’Neill says the Pink Ribbon campaign has helped raise $55 million for 230 research projects since the organisation was established in 1994.

“The NBCF relies on the generous support of the community and our Corporate partnerships, such as the one we have with Seminis, to continue to fund our research projects. In the last 10 years we have seen a 22% decrease in the number of deaths from breast cancer and that’s due to the better detection methods and improved treatments we now have,” she says.

“Already this year we’ve managed to achieve our target commitment to the NBCF,” Ben Hoodless adds. “It’s good to have this opportunity to work with and contribute to such a worthy organisation.”

Issue 94: Field Vs Glasshouse Tomatoes

May/June – 2007
Author: Graeme Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Issue 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 89: Blue-Banded Bees Pass the First Hurdle

July/August – 2006
Author: Steven Carruthers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Issue 84: Current Consumer Attitudes Towards Tomatoes

September/October -2005
Author: Dr Sophie Parks & Dr Suzie Newman

How do Australians currently perceive tomatoes in the market place? This is an important question for the greenhouse industry at this point in time because hydroponic tomato products now have a strong presence in the market place. Understanding tomatoes is one way of identifying areas for industry improvement. To attempt to quantify consumer attitudes towards available tomato types, researchers from NSW DPI recently carried out a consumer survey in Sydney. Significant findings from this work are reported here.

About the survey
The survey was carried out over four days in June this year. Four supermarkets and four fruit and vegetable stores were randomly selected from the North Shore of Sydney. Twenty-five shoppers were interviewed in each store, near the tomato section, providing 200 respondents in total. Twenty questions were asked and the questionnaire took between 3 and 5 minutes to complete. The questions asked were designed to identify purchasing behaviour, use and storage of tomatoes, and the level of satisfaction with tomato quality. For this survey, five types of tomatoes found in the market place were defined: standard/gourmet, roma, truss/vine ripened, hydroponic and cherry/grape.

Purchasing behaviour
Fruit and vegetable stores were slightly favoured over supermarkets for tomato purchases. Although 50% were interviewed in a supermarket, only 32% bought tomatoes exclusively from the supermarket. Most of those interviewed in a fruit and vegetable store (46%) exclusively bought tomatoes there. The remaining 16% shopped at both supermarkets and fruit and vegetable stores, and 6% shopped elsewhere such as growers markets or at an organic store. Most people shopped weekly (66%) buying either 3-5 tomatoes (37%) or 1 kg (40%). Over 10% of people bought 1-2 punnets of cherry or grape tomatoes instead of, or in addition to, other tomatoes. Consumers were asked about the two types of tomatoes that they most frequently bought. Standard tomatoes were the most purchased (67%) and hydroponic tomatoes the least purchased (18%) (Figure 1). Over 35% of shoppers bought truss and cherry types, and over 40% bought roma tomatoes.

Figure 1. The proportion of consumers that bought each tomato type. This was based on the two tomato types that consumers usually purchased. First type – light green; second type – dark green.

The importance of flavour and quality in tomatoes
In terms of quality characteristics, flavour is the king tomato quality. Almost 30% of respondents were concerned about flavour, more than any other quality, when they had been disappointed with a tomato purchase (Figure 2). Firmness was the next quality of concern (16%), followed by ripeness (12%). Flavour was a key reason for buying tomatoes but this differed among tomato types. For example, over 80% of those that bought truss tomatoes did so for reasons of flavour, whereas only 20% of those that bought field tomatoes bought them for flavour (Figure 3). When it came to the question of the most flavoursome tomato, the largest group of consumers identified truss as having the most flavour (Figure 4).

Figure 2. Consumer reasons for being dissatisfied with a tomato purchase.

Figure 3. The reasons for buying a particular tomato type.

Figure 4. The tomato type considered as having the most flavour.

A significant proportion of consumers are not very excited about tomato flavour in the market place. When asked to rate tomato flavour, generally, 57% felt that tomato flavour was poor, not as good as it used to be, or average, and 43% felt that tomato flavour was good to very good. Consumers were asked to score the different tomato types for a number of quality characteristics. These included value for money, colour and appearance, firmness, sweetness, flavour, keeping and overall satisfaction. Combining these scores did not reveal significant differences among tomato types. However, generally speaking, cherry/grape tomatoes scored highest followed by truss, roma, hydroponic and lastly field tomatoes with the lowest quality score. Some consumers commented on how they usually pick out the best tomatoes from a poor batch of field tomatoes. This reflects the lower quality score for this tomato type.

The importance of use and versatility
People buy tomatoes for different uses. At the time of the survey (winter) almost 80% of respondents used tomatoes in salads. Over 35% also used tomatoes in sandwiches and for cooking. Versatility emerged as an important factor in buying tomatoes. It was the most important reason for buying cherry/grape tomatoes and the least important reason for buying any other tomato type (Figure 3). Consumers commented that cherry/grape tomatoes are very easy to use. Cherry/grape tomatoes are ideal as a snack, good for lunch boxes, well liked by kids, easy in salads, sandwiches and on crackers. Some mentioned that waste was reduced compared to other tomato types. Evidently, cherry/grape tomatoes have very successfully captured a niche in the tomato market.

The importance of price
Standard tomatoes were not considered the most flavoursome, or of a particularly high quality, but they were the most popular purchase. One would assume from this result that consumers are price sensitive when buying tomatoes. When asked why they bought field tomatoes, people were more likely to state price than flavour as a reason for buying this tomato type (Figure 3). However, price was not the main reason for buying any of the other tomato types. For truss, roma, and hydroponic tomatoes, flavour was the main factor prompting the purchase of these types. Versatility was the main factor prompting cherry/grape tomatoes, as previously mentioned. Also, price was not an important reason for being dissatisfied with a tomato purchase. In this case, only 2.5% of respondents reported price as being the significant issue.

Consumer comments were revealing about tomato price. Some consumers stated that they were not prepared to pay for more expensive types after having been disappointed with several purchases. Others stated that price was not an issue when entertaining, or when fresh tomato flavour was an important part of the meal, but bought cheaper tomatoes at other times.

Is there a problem with the ‘hydroponic’ tomato?
It is of concern that in this survey hydroponic tomatoes were the least purchased tomato type and were only considered the most flavoursome tomato type by 13% of consumers. However, of those that bought hydroponic tomatoes, 65% buy them for their flavour. Additionally, hydroponic tomato consumers are more likely than other consumers to think of tomato flavour in the market place as generally good.

It would appear that quality is not the reason for hydroponic tomatoes being one of the least popular tomato types in this survey. Perhaps the answer lies in marketing of the hydroponic tomato. In any case, this issue provides an opportunity for the hydroponic tomato industry to explore new ways of gaining a larger piece of the tomato market pie.

Storing tomatoes at home
Knowing how consumers store tomatoes at home can indicate whether or not tomatoes are getting the conditions that encourage full ripeness and flavour. From this survey it appears that there is room to educate consumers about how to best store tomatoes at home.

The majority of consumers store tomatoes in the fridge for 4-7 days. Some people were willing to admit that they kept tomatoes for up to 3 weeks! Ideally, tomatoes should be ripened at room temperature to obtain the best flavour. Once fully ripened they can be placed in the fridge if necessary. Only 30% of people in this survey stored tomatoes at room temperature (Figure 5). Given the importance placed by these consumers on flavour, providing information on correct storage conditions may reduce the dissatisfaction many have with tomato purchases.

Figure 5. Storage of tomatoes at home: Fridge – in the fridge; Open – at room temperature; F+O – at room temperature then in the fridge.

About the consumers
In any survey it is important to know a bit about the people participating so that effects, such as gender preferences, can be identified. In this survey all the respondents were interviewed on the North Shore of Sydney. The North Shore was chosen with the assumption that people in this higher socio/economic area would be more prepared to pay for expensive tomato types. This was important as one of the aims of the survey was to obtain information from consumers about a range of tomato types. If the survey Reels rotate once to release short had been carried out in another region, or at Disposable reels with 25metre twine another time of day or year, we may have obtained a different picture of consumer attitudes towards tomatoes.

Nylon hanger for strength and durability obtained a different picture of consumer Long lengths quickly and easily unwound attitudes towards tomatoes. Hangers will not spin off the crop wire Proven over 5 years in NZ and Australia Two hundred consumers were interviewed in total. There were more females (73%) than males (27%). Over a third had children living at home (38%). Just under a third of people were born overseas (30%). Income was approximately evenly split among four income levels: $0-25 000, $25 000-65 000, $65 000-100 000, >$100 000. Almost half of people were over 50 years of age, 35% were 36-50, 16% were 25-35, and 1% of the respondents were under 25 years of age.

With few exceptions, gender, age, income and place of birth did not influence the way consumers answered the questionnaire. The exception was that 25-35-year-olds were less likely to rate tomato flavour as poor and more likely to rate tomato flavour as good compared with other age groups. This could be interpreted in two ways. Younger taste buds are known to function better than older taste buds; hence this age group has not suffered any loss of tasting capability. Alternatively, tomatoes really good as they used to, with this age group being too young to have ever tried a tasty tomato!

There is a lot to be gained by looking at tomatoes from the consumer perspective. Most consumers buy more than one type of tomato and they are passionate about flavour. Flavour is the main impetus for buying tomatoes, and flavour, firmness and ripeness are perceived to be the biggest problems with tomatoes. Given the emphasis placed on these qualities, consumers would probably benefit with more information on appropriate storage and ripening conditions for tomatoes. As for tomatoes sold as are not as popular as other types and are not readily perceived to be flavoursome, except by those that buy them. The industry needs to address these issues.

About the authors
Dr Sophie Parks is a plant physiologist focused on greenhouse and hydroponic production. Dr Suzie Newman is a postharvest physiologist focused on postharvest and market access issues. They are both based at NSW Department of Primary Industries at Gosford, NSW.

For further information contact:
NSW DPI, Locked Bag 26,
Gosford NSW 2250 Ph:
Email: or

What is tomato flavour?
The organoleptic (taste or flavour) properties of tomato fruits are determined largely by the amounts of solids, particularly sugars and organic acids, and the volatile compound composition (Stevens, 1972). Some 95% of a typical ripe tomato fruit is water, so the tomato quality is therefore determined by a very small amount of solid matter. About 8% of this dry matter is minerals, the rest consisting of various carbon compounds, half of which are sugars as glucose and fructose, and an eighth organic acids. These are the factors which contribute to the typical sweet/sour taste of a tomato.

Sugars and acids not only contribute to the sweetness and sourness of tomatoes, but are also major factors influencing flavour intensity (Stevens et al., 1979). Hobson and Bedford (1989) stated that consumers preferred fruit with a balanced high sugar content, the taste is sweet but, to most people, insipid. With high quality acidity and low sugar content, the taste is rather sharp and thin. When both acidity and sugar content are low, the taste is watery and unattractive (Winsor, 1966). Tomato flavour changes dramatically during the process of ripening. The sugar content of both the seed and pulp increases rapidly during the first appearance of yellow and orange colouration, and then to a lesser extent up to the fully ripe condition (Winsor, 1966). The acidity of juices is relatively high at the mature green stage, but decreases markedly throughout the ripening process from the green or green-yellow stages onwards. The flavour of the fruit is thus best at about the orange-red stage, when sugar content is high and before overall acidity becomes too low.

The composition of cherry tomatoes and its relation to consumer acceptability.
J.Hort.Sci., 64(3): 324-329, Hobson, G.E. and Bedford, 1989.

Components contributing to quality variation among tomato lines
J.Amer.Soc.Hort.Sci., 97(1): 70-73.

Potential for increasing tomato flavour via increased sugar and acid content. 1979.
J.Amer.Soc.Hort.Sci., 104(1): 40-42

The composition, flavour and firmness of tomatoes
Scientific Hort., 18: 27-35.

Issue 81: Weathering the Tomato Season

March/April – 2005
Author: Steven Carruthers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For further information contact:
Sue Korevaar, Hydroponics Farmers Federation