Greenhouse horticulture in Australia is growing considerably. Flavorite was one of its pioneers and continues to lead the way. The company emerged from the trade and has strong connections with its customers. The entire greenhouse technology comes from the Netherlands and Dutch ex-grower Toon Oomen is a valued consultant. Yield and quality has sharply increased thanks partly to his advice.
As a vegetable trader some 20 years ago Mark Millis had nothing good to say about the quality of the products he traded. His son and manager Chris Millis says, “My father said: ‘I want to get the taste back into the tomato.’ Therefore he started to grow for himself. The breakthrough came when he teamed up with fellow trader, Warren Nicol. They started with a small greenhouse and that has expanded to the 24 ha of greenhouses today in Warragul near Melbourne.”
If you can point to the start of professional covered cultivation in Australia then it is the founding of Flavorite in 1994. Since then, the company has always been at the forefront of developments. “We are a plant propagator, grower and trader,” says Millis. “But the focus is now on the cultivation. In addition to our own tomatoes and peppers we sell products such as eggplants and cucumbers that are grown by a network of colleagues, who together have 25 ha glass. We also supply herbs, mango and pineapple. We sell to Australian supermarkets; just one per cent is exported to Singapore and Hong Kong."
Currently there are some 200 ha of high tech greenhouses in Australia and the sector is growing rapidly. This year alone has seen the acreage increase by 25%. Flavorite has always remained a family company but many other big nurseries have been set up by external investors, such as D'vineripe and Blush. “We are in this at the right time. Previously the supermarkets didn’t like private labels. Now they differentiate themselves on sustainability and family companies. With our approach and own brand this is a perfect fit,” says the manager.
Knowledge from abroad
Australia is a country without any greenhouse tradition. Father and son, Millis, realised very quickly that they then needed to acquire knowledge from abroad. That led to tours and courses in the Netherlands. Fifteen years ago they met Toon Oomen, who was then still a grower in Galder, Brabant. Oomen had tomatoes running through his blood: he attained high yields and good quality. That attracted the attention of breeders, who organised numerous trips to his nursery often with foreign visitors. Therefore when he discontinued his nursery he was approached immediately. “I was asked from various sides if I would like to be a manager in Australia. That was not my ambition but after a visit to a large number of these nurseries I saw another solution: Advice given remotely.”
Now he supervises six intensive nurseries, two of which are in New Zealand, and three extensive nurseries. Three times per year he flies across the world and visits them all. For the rest of the year he supervises them via Skype.
Power of persuasion
“Each week they take ten photos of a few plants, taken at the same time on each day, which they send to me via email. In addition I receive all the details about greenhouse climate, settings, watering, heating, cooling, screens and even the pollination (which occurs manually because no bumble bees are present in Australia). The biggest challenge with this supervision is to teach the growers to read the plant.” He does this himself too: first he carefully studies the photos, even before he looks at the climate and production data. He then gives the grower on the nursery his opinion on how the plants are looking and what should be done.
At Flavorite he was initially responsible for 3,000 m2 as a trial area. That has been extended to 11 ha, nearly half of the nursery. In various steps the way of cultivation has changed as a result of his advice. “Substrate, varieties, planting density: all have been adjusted. After that we discussed the cultivation strategy,” says Oomen. “They have a very extreme climate with a high radiation and so they created a robust plant to get through the hot summer. As a result they lost yield during the summer. It takes some persuasion to get them to enter the summer with a bare plant. The diffuse coating Redufuse became available just in time. That made it a lot easier. After a trial they were convinced: the difference was an extra four kilos.”
Greenhouse from the Netherlands
Chris Millis says that the tomato yield over the last seven years has increased from 45 to 80 kilo per m2. “At the beginning we concentrated on improving the quality, irrigation, heating and labour efficiency. Now we focus more on yield,” he says. He doesn’t want to lose Oomen as an advisor. When Oomen indicated that the long plane trips were becoming too much, the nurseries that he advises immediately said: Then in future fly in business class.
It’s striking that the entire greenhouse, including the equipment, right down to the concrete poles, comes from the Netherlands. Even welders were flown in from the Netherlands.
“The greenhouse sector here is still very small and is spread out in clusters. A supply industry is starting to develop but the distances are great. The Netherlands simply has the best equipment; you don’t find that quality here. We keep a careful eye on developments in the Netherlands and each year we offer work placements to two Dutch students. We are always looking for international talent,” says Millis.
His nursery has grown very fast in recent years. Now it’s time to consolidate, he says. “We have taken on a lot of new people and we have to train them ourselves because no formal training is available here. We are now paying attention to improving propagation, packing and automation. But along side that we continue to expand but at a more leisurely pace.”
Lessons for the Netherlands
The whole world looks to the Netherlands for horticultural technology and cultivation. But in other areas Dutch growers can learn from their Australian colleagues, says Oomen. “The nurseries have a strong connection with the trade and the supermarkets. Varieties are chosen together with the buyers, who, five times per season, carry out taste trials on the nursery. Furthermore agreements about the supply are made throughout the year and there is a total openness about the approach. The customers can see everything, for example the implementation of the integrated crop protection measures including the complete registration of substances used, quantities, and times of spraying moments."
Also in the area of finance, Dutch growers can get ideas, he says. “Now, when there is a transfer of nursery, it has to be financed each time again. You always have to go to the bank. You can do it differently: Through more cooperation between growers; through external financers or through a system of ‘sharemilking’, a cooperation whereby a company slowly moves from one owner to another. The Netherlands may well lead the way in the field of technology and cultivation, but in the financial area there is much to improve."
Flavorite was one of the first professional greenhouse nurseries in Australia. The company was set up by traders and it still has a trading function. Because the country does not have a greenhouse tradition the company obtains its knowledge from the Netherlands. The entire greenhouse is Dutch and ex-grower Toon Oomen advises on cultivation techniques. Conversely the Dutch can also learn from Australia in terms of financing and connecting with customers, he says.
Text: Tijs Kierkels Photos: Flavorite