Posts Tagged ‘ vegetables ’

Issue 98: Greenhouse Production In Japan

January/February 2008
Authors: Mike Nichols & Bruce Christie

Although Japan has a large protected cropping industry, only a small proportion of growers use hydroponic systems, with an emerging trend towards plant factories. Report by Mike Nichols & Bruce Christie

In January 2007, we accepted an invitation to speak on organic hydroponics at the 24th SHITA conference in Tokyo, Japan. It was a very rushed visit, but we took the opportunity of looking at the progress being made in Japan in both plant factories and greenhouse crop production. This article will only look at greenhouse crop production, and plant factories will be the subject of a future article.

There are some 52,000 hectares of greenhouses in Japan, and a further 14,000 hectares of rain shelters. The bulk of the greenhouses are covered in plastic film, and less than 5% of the greenhouses are glass clad. Sixty-nine percent of the total greenhouse area is used for vegetable production, only 17% for flowers, and 14% for fruit tree production.

In such a high-tech country as Japan, it is somewhat surprising to find the area of greenhouses devoted to soilless culture is only 1,500 ha (which is comparable to only 3% of the total protected cultivation area). Although there are a range of hydroponic systems used, rockwool predominates followed by the deep flow technique (DFT), and three quarters of the crops grown hydroponically are vegetables. In Japan, melons, strawberries, and watermelon are all classified as vegetables and make up 30% of total greenhouse vegetable areas.

Our visit was in late January, the middle of the northern hemisphere winter, and our observations must clearly be tempered with this – coming from the middle of a New Zealand summer it is all too easy to be critical of production being undertaken in the most difficult part of the year.

In fact, it would be fair to say that with one exception we were very favourably impressed with what we were shown. We only had time to view a few properties in Chiba Province (just north of Tokyo), but learnt a great deal in just two days.

Chiba Province is at latitude 36°N, but has a far better winter climate than one might anticipate, as winter is the dry season, with very little cloud, and better levels of insulation than one might initially anticipate.

Presentation and freshness was paramount at this Farmers Market.

Our first visit was to a farmers’ market, housed in a specially planned building, and selling a very wide range of locally produced fruit and vegetables. Presentation and freshness was paramount, and the local farmers were clearly providing the local consumers with what they required with minimal ‘food miles’ and possibly a small carbon footprint! Of course, it is still possible that for out-of-season production the carbon footprint would still favour imported produce from a southern hemisphere country producing in the summer with lower production costs!

Our first visit was to a greenhouse strawberry producer. Producing ripe strawberries in the middle of the winter demands real attention to detail, and we were most impressed with the appearance of the crop. It was being grown in rockwool slabs on raised troughs, which were watered and fed using a recirculating hydroponic system. Surprisingly, both honeybees and bumblebees were being used for pollination with excellent results, and the price in the shop was even more impressive. We estimate that the price was between NZ$20-25 per tray, or around NZ$200/kg!

Honeybees and bumblebees are used for strawberry pollination.

In Japan, strawberries are classified as a vegetable crop.

This strawberry crop is grown in rockwool slabs on raised troughs.

The crop did not compare well with the greenhouse strawberry crops seen in Belgium (Nichols, 2006), but of course that was in the middle of the summer.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of production was the area set aside for runner production – a key component of any out-of-season strawberry growing.

We use tip runners at Massey University (Nichols, 2002), but at this property runners were rooted into individual pots placed just below the rockwool slabs. It looked to be a more labour intensive and tedious system than tip runners.

Our next visit was to a greenhouse tomato producer. This was a little disappointing because the technology of greenhouse tomato production has developed tremendously over the past 20 years, and this was rather like visiting a time warp. High wires and layering are the keys to efficient production these days and yet this house still had low wires and layered so the fruit essentially sat on the floor.

Seedlings are grafted onto resistant rootstocks.

This house has low wires with the fruit sitting on the floor.

This operation is a small family business.

This was very much a family operation, which suggests inevitably that agribusiness will eventually take over greenhouse crop production, if only because it enables the manager to have sufficient time to keep up-to-date with new developments, and to re-invest in new technology.

Of course, it was not all bad; the next crop of seedlings had been grafted onto resistant rootstocks, the fruit quality looked excellent, and the small pack-house was simple but effective.

Deep flow hydroponic systems using floating rafts are something that we have little experience with in New Zealand. One of the main reasons for visiting Japan at this time was to get a feel for the potential of the system for leafy vegetables, particularly with reference to aquaponics. Not that Japan has developed any aquaponic systems to date, but they are well advanced with deep flow systems.

Soilless culture represents only 3% of the total protected cultivation area.

Our third visit was to a grower who produces about 250t per year of mitzudamo (also known as mizuna) from a 0.8ha greenhouse operation using a very sophisticated floating raft system. This is a continuous year-round operation, which starts with five or six seeds per cell being automatically sown on a block of polyethylene foam cells. Following germination in a controlled temperature room, the plants are grown on for a short time, before the individual cells are automatically transplanted by machine into holes in the expanded polystyrene floating rafts, then transferred to the deep flow system.

The initial rafts have their holes close together. When the plants have grown sufficiently they are again transplanted automatically by machine into floating rafts with holes at a wider spacing. The only difference between rafts is the number of holes per raft.

Seedlings are grown in small plant factories.

Mizuna seedlings with their roots suspended in solution.

Seedlings are automatically transplanted by machine into holes in the polystyrene floating rafts.

Typical DFT growing system.

Seedlings are automatically transplanted into rafts with wider hole spacings.

Harvesting rafts of leafy vegetables is still a manual process.

This small pack-house is simple but effective.

The final product ready for distribution.

A key component of successful transplanting is to ensure that the roots all hang down through the hole, and this is achieved by means of a water stream at transplanting.

The next visit was interesting because it involved the growing of spinach in a hybrid floating raft/NFT system. A similar propagation technology was used to the mitzudamo grower, but because spinach is very susceptible to root-borne diseases (e.g. Phytophthora), each planting was modularised with independent reservoirs.

High root temperatures can also increase disease risks so each reservoir incorporated a heat interchange coil, which could be used to cool the nutrient solution in the summer – between crops it could be used to pasteurize the nutrient solution by circulating hot (80°C) water through the heating coil, a novel way of reducing disease problems.

This spinach crop grown in a hybrid raft/NFT system.

Open view of the hybrid raft/NFT system.

A healthy crop of spinach.

Spinach can be susceptible to root disease problems.

Independent nutrient reservoirs prevent any disease spreading.

This grower had also started to use plant factories for some of his crop production, but in this case only for the propagation stage. We saw both tomato seedlings and lettuce seedlings grown in small plant factories, and there is little doubt in our minds that although the development of plant factories for many crops may be some years away, the use of plant factories for seedling production is here and now, if only to ensure the provision of good quality seedlings exactly when required, without reference to time of year or weather conditions. The speed with which quality seedlings can be produced on demand is outstanding.

The same cannot be said about the crop of lettuce being grown in the greenhouse from these seedlings, however. Botrytis was starting to appear, and could easily have been controlled with a single application of fungicide while the plants were small. This would have the effect of preventing Botrytis spores germinating on older leaves as they died due to old age. Initially, Botrytis normally only infects dead plant material – if the older leaves are protected by a suitable fungicide before they die, then Botrytis infection can be minimised.

An alternative strategy is to ensure that the humidity in the greenhouse is kept below 90%, but in practise this is difficult to achieve at the base of a lettuce crop. Botrytis spores require the presence of liquid water if they are to germinate and infect plants, and keeping the humidity down reduces this risk, as well as reducing the risk of tipburn on the leaves.

About the author

Drs Mike Nichols and Bruce Christie are horticultural research scientists at the College of Sciences, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand. Email: or

• Nichols, M.A. (2002), Strawberry tip runners, Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses, 64, 34-5.
• Nichols, M.A. (2006), Berry Fruit in Belgium, Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses, 90, 41-46.

Issue 91: Chilling The Root Zone

November/December – 2006
Authors: Dr Atomic Leow Chuan Tse and Ms Wong Shaou-Yi Ruth

Chilling The Root Zone: Revolutionary Energy Cost-Saving Chilling System for Temperate Plant Production in Tropical Climates
Research studies at Temasek Polytechnic in Singapore show that controlled chilling of the root zone for temperate-climate vegetables can significantly increase vegetative growth and prevent them from wilting and bolting under tropical conditions. Temasek researchers have also developed a revolutionary cost-saving hydroponic chilling system that can be easily incorporated into existing commercial hydroponic systems with minimal capital inputs and disruption to existing infrastructures.

Agricultural crops are divided into cool-season and warm-season plants. Cool-season plants or temperate plants generally thrive poorly in the hot tropics. For example, butterhead lettuce, iceberg lettuce, cabbage and rhubarb are cool-season vegetables that tend to bolt in long day and high temperature environments.

Bolting is defined as the tendency of cool-season plants to grow rapidly and produce seed without first establishing strong vegetative growth when exposed to warm temperatures. Generally speaking, long days tend to favour bolting or seed stalk formation; while short days favour vegetative growth. Bolting results in numerous physiological and biochemical changes in plants. For example, the amount of bitter compounds, the sesquiterpene lactones, increase sharply as lettuce plants approach flowering. This causes off-flavour in lettuce, making the edible parts bitter and tough. Bolting also causes heat-sensitive head lettuce to form loose heads; this further renders the end products un-sellable.

In addition, high environmental temperatures can result in moisture stress, photosynthetic slum, and severe wilting in heat sensitive species, factors which can lead to a devastating loss in yield and productivity.

In temperate climate countries, growers adopt various planting strategies to combat or reduce the chance of bolting. One approach is to plant cool-season crops close together in wide rows to keep the soil and roots cool. Another approach is to avoid planting the crops too early in spring, as a sudden cold spell followed by warm weather can quickly set off bolting.

In the tropics, growers employ various evaporative cooling methods (e.g. the fan-and-pad method and fine mist fogging) to lower greenhouse temperatures, so as to create a cool greenhouse climate for cultivation of heat sensitive cool season plants.

In 1993, Dr Atomic Leow pioneered the use of thin film chilled nutrient solution or chilled nutrient mist to chill the root zone of cool season plants (e.g. zucchini, strawberry, tulips, carnations, cabbage and lettuce), and succeeded in raising these cool season plants in NFT (Nutrient Film Technique) channels and in the aeroponic system, respectively, in Singapore1. This pioneer work is fully detailed in a hydroponic textbook entitled A Guide to Hydroponics written by Dr Atomic Leow and published by the Singapore Science Centre in 1994. Subsequently, researchers and commercial growers in Singapore and in other parts of the tropics attempted to grow butterhead and iceberg lettuce using chilled nutrient solution technology with various degrees of success. For example, aeroponic farms in Singapore and Malaysia are using huge chillers to chill bulk quantities of nutrient solution, employing high-pressure pumps with timer control to spray either a continuous or intermittent chilled mist to the plant roots to grow a range of cool-season lettuce such as butterhead and romaine lettuce. However, this chilled solution technology is energy demanding and greatly increases the cost of production, which decreases the profit margin.

At Temasek Polytechnic in Singapore, Dr Atomic Leow invented a revolutionary energy cost-saving chilling system that can be easily incorporated into existing commercial hydroponic systems (NFT, aeroponics, and Deep Flow Technique), to deliver small quantities of chilled nutrient solution to the root zone of plants. This chilling technology enables many economically important temperate plants to be grown in the hot tropics at one seventh of the energy cost of the conventional chilled aeroponic system. This research paper provides convincing research evidence to show that using chilled solution technology, a range of difficult to grow cool season plants, such as purple basil, butthead lettuce, Shanghai Pak Choy and broccolini, can be successfully grown in tropical Singapore.

Effect of chilled solution temperature on root growth and plant development
Plant scientists have long observed that root zone temperatures exert a greater influence on the development of plants than the surrounding ambient air temperature 2,3. Crop species of tropical and sub-tropical origins, which are vulnerable to root zone chilling, are usually categorized as chilling-sensitive species. Some examples of chilling-sensitive species include cassava (Manihot esculenta), Ephedrine or Ma Huang (Ephedra vulgaris), cotton (Gossypium hirsutum), and mung bean (Vigna radiata). Species such as cucumber (Cucumis sativum), soybean (Glycine max), maize (Zea mays), common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), and cereal grass (Sorghum spp.) are considered to be moderately sensitive species4, while the mustard family (Brassica spp.), barley (Hordeum vulgare), wheat (Triticum aestivum), and spinach (Spinacia oleracea) are classified as chilling resistant or tolerant species4.

Most published studies have investigated effects of root-zone chilling and plant responses using solution culture (e.g. 5, 6, 7, 8). Through these studies, it has been established that over-chilling of the root zone temperatures can have detrimental effects on the root and plant development, especially in chill-sensitive plants. For example, chilling had been shown to induce changes in the function and integrity of root cell plasma membranes; this may contribute to the associated decreases in water and nutrient (e.g. B, K+, Ca2+, NH4+, Cl-, NO3-) uptake by plant roots. Such changes include cell membrane lipid composition9, membrane fluidity10, and dysfunction of membrane-bound enzymes such as H+-ATPase11, 12.

In chilling sensitive species, cellular membrane alterations precede other cellular changes, and adverse effects on different cellular organelles are dependent on the duration of chilling and associated growth conditions, including photon flux density and relative humidity9. Root chilling can also cause a reduction in leaf stomatal conductance in a range of species, such as bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) 13, maize14 and tomato15. In chilling-sensitive species, chilling decreases root hydraulic conductance and slows down water absorption and impairs stomatal control that leads to excessive water loss and leaf wilting16,17. Chilling-tolerant maize lines, on the other hand, were found to have lower transpiration and higher water potentials in recently matured leaves than those in chilling-sensitive lines18.

In short, over-chilling of the root zone can result in tissue damage, interference in ion transport, and impair leaf stomatal control. Thus, growers who intend to exploit chilled nutrient solution technology to grow cool-season crops in the hot tropics, must first take into consideration the nature of the cool-season crops under study, and to experimentally determine the upper and lower range of chilled solution temperatures that can be applied to the root zone of plants under study for prolong periods without incurring tissue damage and physiological dysfunction to the plants.

In this research report, the authors conducted mass screening of some selected cool season plants for heat tolerance. The upper and lower range of chilled solution temperatures that can be fed to the root zone of these selected heat-tolerant varieties were experimentally determined, and then tested in the energy cost-saving chilling system developed at Temasek Polytechnic for small-scale commercial trials in the hot tropics.

Comparative growth studies of sweet and purple basils raised by five different types of hydroponic treatments
Material and Methods
Seedlings of sweet and purple basil (Red Rubin) were transplanted into either a Deep Flow Water Culture (DFWC) or Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) growth system when they attained a height of about 2cm.

In DFWC, the basil roots were immersed in a large quantity of either chilled re-circulating nutrient solution (Treatment 5) or non-chilled re-circulating nutrient solution (Treatments 1 & 2). For NFT, the basil roots were continuously fed with a thin film of either chilled re-circulating nutrient solution (Treatment 4), or non-chilled re-circulating nutrient solution (Treatment 3). For treatments involving chilled solution, chilling was carried out entirely using the energy cost-saving chilling system developed at Temasek Polytechnic. The five experimental treatments were summarized as follows:

Treatment 1
Sweet basil – grown in non-chilled nutrient solution in Deep Flow Water Culture (NC-DFWC).

Treatment 2
Purple basil – grown in non-chilled nutrient solution in Deep Flow Water Culture (NC-DFWC).

Treatment 3
Purple basil – grown in non-chilled nutrient solution in Nutrient Film Technique (NC-NFT).

Treatment 4
Purple basil – grown in chilled nutrient solution in Nutrient Film Technique (C-NFT).

Treatment 5
Purple basil – grown in chilled nutrient solution in Deep Flow Water Culture (C-DFWC).

The leaf areas and height of the basil plants grown in the five different hydroponic treatments were measured weekly and the data collected were subjected to the Duncan Multiple Range Test (DMRT) to establish the degree of statistical significance.

Results and Discussions
The results of Table 1 and Table 2 show that sweet basil plants could be grown relatively easily in Singapore using NC-DFWC. However, massive root rots were observed in the sweet basil plants on day 40 of cultivation. The heat-sensitive purple basil plants also displayed a similar growth response when raised in NC-DFWC, with massive root rot set in by day 40 of cultivation (see Fig. 1). As root rot was not observed in the purple basil plants raised by NC-NFT, it was concluded that prolonged exposure of the root zones to large amounts of warm (30°C), non-chilled nutrient solution, was detrimental to the basil root development and was directly responsible for the observed root rots seen in NC-DFWC. Generally, purple basil plants raised in NC-NFT performed significantly poorer than those raised in NC-DFWC, albeit the advantage of root rot absence.

Figure 1. Massive root rots of un-chilled purple basil plants.

Chilled nutrient solution (26°C) confers a definite protective role to the basil roots. By growing the purple basil in C-NFT and C-DFWC, the root rot problem could be completely circumvented (see Fig. 2). Chilling also greatly enhanced the vegetative growth of the purple basil plants (see Fig. 3 and Fig. 4), and intensified the purple anthocyanin of the purple basil plants (see Fig. 4). This enhancement in vegetative growth and intensification of the purple colouration were related to the amount of chilled nutrient solution being fed to the plant roots.

Figure 2. Healthy roots of chilled purple basil plants.

Figure 3. Un-chilled purple basil plants exhibiting signs of gross heat stress, poor vegetative growth and lost of purple pigments.

Figure 4. Chilled purple basil plants exhibiting robust vegetative growth and significantly darker purple pigments than un-chilled plants.

Figure 5. Chilling intensifies the anthocyanin pigmentation of the purple basil plants.

A large amount of chilled nutrient solution, as in C-DFWC, was shown to be more effective than a shallow amount of chilled nutrient solution, as in C-NFT. In addition, chilling was also effective in removing the bitterness experienced in non-chilled purple basil plants.

Unpublished data of Dr Atomic Leow and Ms Ruth Wong had shown that chilling of basil roots significantly increases the methyl chavicol content of the purple basil plants. Perhaps, this may explain why chilling was effective in removing the bitterness experienced in non-chilled purple basil plants.

These comparative growth studies categorically establish that the temperate purple basil plants could be grown commercially in the hot tropics using C-NFT or C-DFWC. The latter was the preferred method as it results in a marked increase in vegetative yield, intensification of the purple colouration, and complete removal of the bitterness experienced in the untreated purple basil plants. The optimal solution temperature for growing purple basil in the hot tropics was found to be in the region of 25°C – 26°C. Solution temperatures lower than 20°C could result in irreversible damage to the basil roots.

Comparative growth studies of butterhead lettuce raised by six different types of hydroponic treatments

Materials and Methods
Seedlings of butterhead lettuce (Rex) were transplanted into either a Deep Flow Water Culture (DFWC), Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) channels, or the aeroponic system when they attained a height of about 2cm. The hydroponic systems were supplied with chilled or non-chilled nutrient solution. For treatments involving chilled solution, chilling was carried out entirely using the energy cost-saving chilling system developed at Temasek Polytechnic. The six experimental treatments are summarized as:

Treatment 1
Butterhead lettuce – Grown by non-chilled Deep Flow Technique [NC-DFWC]

Treatment 2
Butterhead lettuce – Grown by chilled Deep Flow Technique [C-DFWC]

Treatment 3
Butterhead lettuce – Grown by non-chilled Nutrient Film Technique [NC-NFT]

Treatment 4
Butterhead lettuce – Grown by chilled Nutrient Film Technique [C-NFT]

Treatment 5
Butterhead lettuce – Grown by chilled aeroponic technique [C-Aeroponics]

Treatment 6
Butterhead lettuce – Grown by extra chilled Deep Flow Technique [EC-DFWC]

The leaf area of butterhead lettuce was measured weekly and the data collected were subjected to the Duncan Multiple Range Test (DMRT) to establish the degrees of statistical significance.

Results and Discussion
The results of Table 3 show that C-DFWC and C-Aeroponics were far more superior than C-NFT in promoting leafy growth of butterhead lettuce (Rex). In addition, butterhead lettuce raised in C-DFWC and C-Aeroponics also formed better semi-loose heads than those raised by C-NFT.

Of the three types of chilling systems investigated, C-DFWC was by far the best system for growing heat-sensitive butterhead lettuce in the tropics. Butterheads raised in C-DFWC (Fig. 6) was also found to weigh 25% more than those raised in C-Aeroponics.

Figure 6 . Butterhead lettuce (Rex) grown by six types of hydroponic systems. From top right hand corner in clockwise direction: C-DFWC, NC-DFWC, EC-DFWC, C-NFT, C-Aeroponics and NC-NFT.

Dr Atomic Leow
Without chilling the root zones, butterhead lettuce performed poorly in the hot tropics (see Fig.6). Figure 7 and Figure 8 show the close views of two varieties of butterhead lettuce (Panama, Rex) successfully raised in Singapore by C-DFWC.

Figure 7. Close view of butterhead lettuce (Panama) raised in C-DFWC.

Figure 8. Close view of butterhead lettuce (Rex) raised in C-DFWC.

Extra chilling of the root-zone temperature to 20°C, as in Treatment 6 using the EC-DFWC, conferred no added advantage, but was actually detrimental to the growth of the butterhead lettuce (Table 3, Fig. 6).

In conclusion, production of high quality temperate butterhead lettuce in tropical Singapore is no longer a myth, and can be achieved by growing a heat-tolerant variety butterhead in combination with an energy cost-saving C-DFWC, like that devised at Temasek Polytechnic.

Comparative growth studies of Shanghai Pak Choy grown in chilled and non-chilled Deep Flow Water Culture

Materials and Methods
Seedlings of Shanghai Pak Coy (Brassica campestris Chinensis) were transplanted into either a NC-DFWC or C-DFWC when they attained a height of about 2cm. For the latter treatment, the nutrient solution was chilled using the energy cost-saving chilling system developed at Temasek Polytechnic.

The leaf areas of the Shanghai Pak Coy were measured weekly and the data collected were subjected to Duncan Multiple Range Test (DMRT) to establish the degrees of statistical significance.

Results and Discussions
The results of Table 4 show that heat sensitive Shanghai Pak Choy (Brassica campestris Chinensis) performed poorly in NC-DFWC in Singapore. The plants were grossly under-sized and displayed severe heat distress responses such as wilting and folding-up of the leaves on hot afternoons (see Fig. 7).

In contrast, Shanghai Pak Choy grew robustly in C-DFWC and was darker green in colour and showed no signs of any wilting or bolting under the scorching tropical sun (Fig. 8 and Fig 9). Thus, this study shows that heat sensitive Brassica species can be grown successfully in hot tropics by mere manipulation of the nutrient solution temperature bathing the root zone by a few degrees downward.

Figure 9. Shanghai Pak Choy performed poorly in NC-DFWC.

Figure 10 . Pak Choy displaying vigorous
vegetative growth in C-DFWC.

Figure 11. Close view of the Shanghai Pak Choy raised in C-DFWC.

The amazing effect of root-zone chilling to promote vegetative growth of heat-sensitive vegetables raised in the hot tropics was elegantly demonstrated in 1993 by Dr Atomic Leow when he transformed a dwarf variety of Pak Choy into a gigantic size merely by supplying a shallow stream of appropriately chilled nutrient solution to the root zone of plants (see Fig. 12). Unpublished data by Dr Atomic Leow while working with overseas researchers in 1996 indicates that chilling of the plant root zone increases the gibberellin-like substances in plants by several folds.

Figure 12. Comparison of the size of dwarf Pak Choy raised in NC-NFT (held up by Dr. Leow) and in C-NFT.

In summary, Temasek Polytechnic of Singapore have invented a revolutionary energy cost-saving hydroponic chilling system that can be easily incorporated into existing commercial hydroponic systems with minimal capital inputs and disruption to existing infrastructures. The hydroponic chilling system is unique in that it delivers only a small quantity of pre-determined chilled nutrient solution to the root zone to enable a range of heat-sensitive, cool-season plants to be cultivated in Singapore. Being an energy cost-saving system, the chilling system consumes only one-seventh of the energy cost of conventional chilled aeroponics.

Research studies conducted at Temasek Polytechnic also show that controlled chilling of the root zone of heat-sensitive vegetables in the tropics can significantly increase the vegetative growth of vegetables and prevent plants from wilting and bolting under the high tropical heat.

Unpublished data by Dr Atomic Leow while working with overseas researchers in 1996 indicated that chilling the root zone causes the gibberellin-like substances of plants to rise by several fold. Chilling also intensifies the anthocyanin pigmentation of purple basil plants, the chlorophyll pigmentation of heat-sensitive Brassica species, and prevents the photo catalytic breakdown of these pigments under extreme tropical heat.

Of the various hydroponic systems tested at Temasek Polytechnic, C-DFWC was found to be superior for the cultivation of heat-sensitive, cool-season plants in the tropics, as shown by the robust growth of broccolini plants (Fig. 13 and Fig. 14). It is anticipated that this ground-breaking energy-saving technology developed at Temasek Polytechnic will generate tremendous interest for both local and foreign investors for the cultivation of high-value temperate crops in the hot tropics.

Figure 13. Robust broccolini plants growing in C-DFWC.

Figure 14. A close view of broccolini plant growing in C-DFWC.

The authors would like to thank Temasek Polytechnic and the Singapore Totalisator Board for making available the funds and manpower needed for this research study.

About the authors
Dr Atomic Leow Chuan Tse is the former Head of the Biotechnology Specialist Unit, Temasek Applied Science School, Temasek Polytechnic, Singapore. Ms Wong Shaou-Yi Ruth is a researcher at Temasek Applied Science School, Temasek Polytechnic, Singapore.

Literature cited
1. Leow, A.C.T.,
1994 – A Guide to Hydroponics.
Singapore Science Centre.

2. Cannon, W.A.,
1917 – Soil temperature and plant growth.
Plant World 20: 361-363.

3. Jones and Linus, H.,
1938 – Relation of soil temperature to chlorosis of gardenia.
Jour. Agr. Res. 57: 611-621.

4. Kratsch, H.A. and Wise, R.R.,
2000 – The ultrastructure of chilling stress.
Plant, Cell and Environment 23: 337-350.

5. Forno, D.A., Asher, C.J. and Edwards, D.G.,
1979 – Boron nutrition of cassava, and the boronxtemperature interaction.
Field Crop Research 2: 265-279.

6. Macduff, J.H., Hopper, M.J. and Wild, A.,
1987 – The effect of root temperature on growth and uptake of ammonium and nitrate by Brassica napus L. cv. Bien venu in flowing solution culture.
Journal of Experimental Botany 38: 53-66.

7. Ye, Z., Bell, R.W., Dell, B. and Huang, L.,
2000 – Response of sunflower to boron supply at low root zone temperature.
Communication in Soil Science and Plant Analysis 31: 2379-2392.

8. Ye, Z., Huang, L., Bell, R.W. and Dell, B.,
2003 – Low root zone temperature favours shoot B partitioning into young leaves of oilseed rape (Brassica napus).
Physiologia Plantarum 118: 213-220.

9. Lyons, J.M., Graham, D. and Raison, J.K.,
1979 – Low temperature stress in crop plants: the role of the membrane.
New York: Academic Press.

10. Queiroz, C.G.S., Alonso, A., Mares-Guia, M. and Magalhaes, A.C.,
1998 – Chilling-induced changes in membrane fluidity and antioxidant enzyme activities in Coffea arabica L. roots.
Biologia Plantarum 41: 403-413.

11 Shabala, S.N. and Newman, I.A.,
1997 – H+ flux kinetics around plant roots after short-term exposure to low temperature: identifying critical temperatures for plant chilling tolerance.
Plant, Cell and Environment 20: 1401-1410.

12. Ahn, S.J., Im, Y.J., Chung, G.C. and Cho, B.H.,
1999 – Inducible expression of plasma membrane H+-ATPase in the roots of figleaf gourd plants under chilling root temperature.
Physiologia Plantarum 106: 35-40.

13. Matzner, S. and Comstock, J.,
2001 – The temperature dependence of shoot hydraulic resistance: implications for stomatal behaviour and hydraulic limitation.
Plant, Cell and Environment 24: 1299-1307.

14. Aroca, R., Irigoyen, J.J., and Sanchez-Diaz, M.,
2003a – Drought enhances maize chilling tolerance. II. Photosynthetic traits and protective mechanisms against oxidative stress.
Physiologia Plantarum 117: 540-549.

15. Bloom, A.J., Zwieniecki, M.A., Passioura, J.B., Randall, L.B., Holbrook, N.M., and St Clair, D.A.,
2004 – Water relations under root chilling in a sensitive and tolerant tomato species.
Plant, Cell and Environment 27: 971-979.

16. Capell, B., Drffling, K.,
1993 – Genotype-specific differences in chilling tolerance of maize in relation to chilling-induced changes in water status and abscisic acid accumulation.
Physiologia Plantarum 88: 638-646.

17. Bloom, A.J., Zwieniecki, M.A., Passioura, J.B., Randall, L.B., Holbrook, N.M., and St Clair, D.A.,
2004 – Water relations under root chilling in a sensitive and tolerant tomato species.
Plant, Cell and Environment 27: 971-979.

18. Capell, B. and Drffling, K.,
1993 – Genotype-specific differences in chilling tolerance of maize in relation to chilling-induced changes in water status and abscisic acid accumulation.
Physiologia Plantarum 88: 638-646.

Farewell testimonial

By Steven Carruthers
Following a stellar career as one of Singapore’s foremost hydroponic research scientists and tertiary educators, Dr Atomic Leow Chuan Tse has resigned as Head of the Biotechnology Specialist Unit, Temasek Applied Science School, at Temasek Polytechnic in Singapore, to pursue his life-long dream to study medicine at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom.

Among Dr Leow’s many industry achievements has been the development of a revolutionary hydroponic system to produce spectacular commercial cut orchids. The ‘Precise Influx Hydroponic Growth System’ (PIHGS) utilizes an automated mechanism to deliver precise, pre-determined amounts of nutrient solution that effectively circumvents the root-rot problem faced by many hydroponic orchid growers. (Many of our readers will recall our feature story on this revolutionary system in our January/February 2006 issue.) The technology is now licensed to a biotechnology company and a major orchid grower in Singapore. Dr Leow is also the inventor of a revolutionary, cost-saving chilling system for temperate plant production in the tropics, featured in this issue.

Formerly educated in Australia, Dr Leow holds a Bachelor of Agricultural Science (Honours) and Diploma in Education from La Trobe University. He is also a Doctor of Philosophy (Toxicology), the result of a La Trobe University Research Scholarship for PhD research in toxicology of drugs.

In 2006, he was awarded a Graduate Diploma in Christian Studies (summa cum laude and Dean’s Award).

Between 1982 and 1990, while a biology lecturer at St Andrew’s Junior College in Singapore, Dr Leow pioneered the first Bodybuilding Club in Singapore, an interest that stems from his high school years when he was placed second in the Mr Chung Ling Muscle Improvement Competition in Penang, Malaysia. In 1985, he was awarded the Certificate of Merit by the Asia Bodybuilding Federation, and the Certificate of Merit by the International Federation of Body-Builders (IFBB), Montreal, Canada (1986).

Returning to his academic career, in 1984 and again in 1987, Dr Leow supervised the science students to capture first prize in the Singapore National Science Fair. In 1990, he became one of the pioneer biotech lecturers that helped to start up the Biotechnology course at Ngee Ann Polytechnic in Singapore, where he lectured in plant tissue culture, animal and plant cell biology, hydroponics and biochemical laboratory techniques. Between 1992 and 1997, Dr Leow was a senior lecturer and Agrotechnology Coordinator at Singapore Polytechnic, where he lectured in Plant Cell Biology, Human Anatomy and Physiology and Agrotechnology, as well as teaching inorganic chemistry to biotechnology students.

In 1995, Dr Leow authored the world’s first CD-Rom on hydroponics, which won the ‘Creative Ngee Ann Multimedia Award’. During this period he also mentored the gifted students in the top Secondary Schools in Singapore on ‘Life Sciences’ research projects. In 1996 he was invited as a Visiting Fellow to the prestigious Institute of Agribiology & Soil Fertility at the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, where he presented a seminar paper on the ‘Impact of hydroponic technology on the agrotechnology industries in Singapore’ and the ‘Effect of nutrient cooling on the gibberellins metabolism in Simposai’. During the 1990’s, Dr Leow also served as a volunteer counselor for Singapore Prisons and Drug Rehabilitation Centres.

Between 1997 and 2006, Dr Leow has been the principal lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic and Head of the Biotechnology Specialist Unit where he secured international accreditations from numerous international universities for the ‘Diploma in Biotechnology’ programme at Temasek Polytechnic.

Although Dr Leow had fulfilled all the requirements to study medicine as a younger man, he was unable to do so owing to his deep commitment to raise his two daughters with care and love. His youngest daughter is now a fifth year medical student at the School of Medicine at Melbourne University. In fact, medicine seems to run in the family with a brother-in-law the Clinical Director at Frankston Hospital, Victoria, and a cousin and nephew who also have careers in medicine. Now the time has come for Leow to follow his life-long passion to study medicine.

As a strong advocate of hydroponic technologies, and a role model for his many students and colleagues, Leow’s contribution to the industry has been enormous and our best wishes go with him in his new career where I am certain he will make an indelible mark. Farewell old friend. The hydroponics industry is the poorer for your departure.  Ω

PH&G November/December 2006 / Issue 91

Issue 87: PMA Summit 2005

March/April – 2006
Author: Lisa Crooks

Popeye has the most complete line of nationally distributed spinach items in the US and Canada.

The organisers of the 56th annual Produce Marketing Association’s (PMA) 2005 Fresh Summit International Convention and Exposition PMA attracted 17,000 people and 800 exhibitors from 70 countries. All gathered at the Georgia World Congress Center between 4-8 November 2005. The professionalism for the entire event was wonderful, the experience and knowledge gained in a matter of five days, unbelievable!

Cartoon characters were a feature of the Summit to bring fresh produce to life.

As President of the PMA, Brian Silbermann, showed us the state of the industry with his insight into trends, issues, and opportunities from many different perspectives. Looking at fresh produce food service, projected sales in 2005 was a cool $476 billion, showing 13 years of consecutive growth, and a 47% share of the food dollar. This means consumers are buying more fruit and vegetables. The consumer is telling us what they want, and America showed me what they had to offer.

There were 29 different presentations from motivational presenters from around the world, covering: global trade, technology, hot topics, packaging, professional development, supply chain, consumption, and food safety. I was grateful to be travelling with Maxine Grieve from ‘Value Adding Adelaide Plains’ in South Australia. This organisation helps to develop new market and product opportunities for local business at the quality or premium end of the market. Also travelling with our group was Sue Foster, from Fosters Herbs in South Australia, and Mark McLauchlan, CEO of Foodlands. Between the four of us, attending all the workshops was still a challenge. More time was needed; also concurrent sessions would have been appreciated. There was so much information handed to us, I wanted to see it all!

Morning sessions were served up with an enticing breakfast, where sponsors promoted there products. This gave us a fantastic opportunity to network with others from around the world. Topics covered at breakfast were: Building Sustainable Market Leadership, and Maximising your ‘Return on Customer’, which takes customer relationship to the next level. The week ended with some light-hearted entertainment presented by Scott Adams, the cartoonist, sharing his journey of success in becoming the creator of ‘Dilbert’.

Other workshop topics included:

Reinventing Produce, Re-invigorating Profits
Taking a fresh produce commodity and redefine its perception in the eyes of the consumer in order to increase sales and consumption.

A unique in store display for fresh lettuce.

Another novel idea for marketing indoor plants.

Economic Influences on the Global Produce Market
How global economic indicators relate to the produce industry, and what has the greatest impact.

RFID (Radio Frequency Identification Data) What’s New, What’s Next
Latest developments and how the implications of these innovations could lead to greater returns for your operations.

Perfecting the Food Service Supply Chain
The answer lies in better communication and understanding. Learning how to identify some of the issues within the supply chain.

Competitive Strategies in Today’s Retail Environment
Produce Business magazine research results gave us insights into EDLP and high/low strategies, the power of loyalty cards, and the role of special buys in the retail stores.

If You Package It, They Will Buy
How packaging influences consumer purchases and what the industry could do to make them buy more.

Advanced Selling Skills: Ready, Set, Close
Assessing your level of selling and providing you with strategies, on how to increase sales significantly, by making a few small changes to your sales process.

The Role of the Wholesaler: Changing Times, Changing Roles
Wholesalers must provide value-added services by acting more as consultants to their customers, creating a mutually beneficial partnership with your customers.

A Town Hall on Transportation, Identifying Opportunities
Open discussion on critical transportation. Industry leaders offered their opinion on what initiatives they believe need to be undertaken. Yes, they have the same issues throughout the world.

Sales for All Seasons
Increasing non-holiday sales in the floral department, using the ‘5 senses’ approach to merchandising, and new opportunities for sales and the out of the box techniques and promotions needed to capture these markets.

A Proactive Approach to Your Food Safety Program
Having a solid food safety action plan is a critical element to your organisation’s future success. This session provided an overview for developing a plan of action, including the proactive measures you should incorporate.

International Retailing Trends, Lessons, and Opportunities
Examples of global retail trends and best practices – including technology, sourcing and merchandising from leaders in the industry.

Competitive Strategy:
Increase Revenue through Improved Positioning
Designed especially for non-marketing professionals – how your products compete with those that are more fun, more convenient, taste better or cost less.

Strategies for Transport Packaging
A panel of supply chain experts outlined the realities of iceless packaging and returnable packaging; the challenges surrounding supply and demand and cold chain maintenance.

Technology for Supply Chain Excellence
Consider technology such as e-commerce, barcodes, RFID tags and ‘smart shelves’ that can help you improve your operations and increase the speed and efficiency of the supply chain.

Spotting Consumer Trends
Understanding emerging consumer trends within the produce industry and how to profitably position your products: and meet ever-changing consumer demands.

If Produce Is So Good, Why Isn’t More on the Menu?
This was an interactive panel discussion on how to help your customers get more fresh produce, and what were the obstacles.

Implementing a Produce Safety Action Plan and Commodity Specific Guidelines
In response to food-borne illness associated with produce, the FDA is writing a ‘Produce Safety Action Plan’ designed to help prevent future outbreaks.

Connecting with the Customer:Taking Relationships to the Next Level
How will your actions today increase the value of your customer base tomorrow? Discovering how to leverage the strengths of the organisation to grow shareholders’ value.

Data Synchronisation
Equipping you with the basics of data synchronisation: what it is, why it is important, how it can benefit you, and where this critical process is heading.

Produce Managers Speak Out:
Consumer Behaviour As Seen Through Their Eyes

What do consumers do in reality as opposed to what they say, what consumers really value in a produce department, and what observations produce managers can share about consumer purchasing behaviour.

Everything you need to know about floral label requirements
Could the floral labelling regulations impact your business? Are you compliant with regulations. This session outlined mandatory requirements, and how some companies are handling the challenges of compliance.

Surviving and FDA Inspection:

Preparation, Compliance, and Action

Understanding your rights and what you need to do in order to be prepared for an FDA inspection.

The Secrets to Global Market Access
Hearing how some companies have gained market access into two of the biggest global markets, the United States and China. Learning from others what obstacles they had to overcome and what kind of preparation you must do before attempting entry.

Hiring Tomorrow’s Top Performers

Learning vital facts about the workforce of the future, and helping to identify what will motivate it.

The Complexities of Global Shipping

Discovering the challenges that both exporter and importer face, and what innovations have been developed to solve these challenges to increase efficiencies.

How Well Do You Understand Your Customers, and Theirs?

The importance of research can enhance supply chain communication and collaboration; examples of cutting-edge strategies that have helped companies enhance their supply relationships with consumers and supply chain partners. Options available for gathering valuable information, and how to gather and interpret your own research.

Time was allocated to visit the exhibition site of the PMA with around 800 exhibitors. There was plenty to see. Many countries from around the world proudly showcased there displays, some bringing in cartoon characters to promote products, chefs to prepare food, and authors to sign books – no stone was left unturned. Congratulations to the exhibitors; they helped to make the Summit the success it was.

The Summit identified two types of consumers to market fresh food products. The first is the consumer who wants everything done for them, just zap and serve. The type of consumer is the one who enjoys starting from scratch and preparing food. Both the supermarket and farmers’ market have a larger variety of choices. For example, take the simple carrot. It comes in different colours, typically orange, and now comes in purple and white. Options available to the customer include: whole, baby, diced, grated, sliced, julienne, carrot chips, some packs in plain orange while others are multi-coloured, pre-packed, vacuumed packed, partially cooked, blended with other vegetables, displayed with dip, and packaged on serving trays: all displayed on the shelf, be it in the fresh produce department, the freezer or the meat section, even to the deli. It was hard to choose the most popular line, as quantity of stock on the shelf appeared to be the same.

Supermarkets display fresh produce in a variety

of ways to capture consumer interest.

An assorted array of fresh produce to tempt the consumer.

By this stage of the conference, I was grateful for a change of pace and ready to be taken to the shops to see the finished products. Supermarkets are offering a larger variety in America catering more for the convenience shopper. Only some stores continue to use the black boxes; most have now opted for narrower and taller individual displays, giving the appearance of quantity and variety on the shelves with pre-cut, ready to serve, throw away containers. Then there are the farmers’ markets, offering variety plus tempting the taste buds for the more unusual. The farmers’ markets are strategically placed in more upmarket areas. In many of the markets you not only find fruit and vegetables, but also fresh seafood, a meat section, and a dairy section, including cheeses. Alcohol also appears to be a popular line with Australian wines proving very popular.

As growers, we are encouraged to see the new ideas, then to ask ourselves how we can do that better? The one thing that is clear, is that value adding is big in America!

For further information contact:

(For more information about the PMA go to website

About the author
Lisa Crooks is a Queensland-based hydroponic and soil parsley grower.

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 73: Retail Industry Reforms

November/December – 2003
Author: Christine Paul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PH&G November/December 2003 / Issue 73