The ‘Qukes’ baby cucumbers grown at Family Fresh Farms in Australia are sold into supermarkets nationwide. The key to the company’s sustained growth lies in the focus on continuous improvement in all aspects, from employee training to precision growing and from sustainability to LED lighting, according to Nicky Mann, WHS and Labour Manager.

Family Fresh Farms in Australia is a dream come true for its investor and owner. “Gerry Harvey is a well-known Australian entrepreneur who had always wanted to be a farmer when he was young,” says Nicky Mann, the company’s Work Health & Safety (WHS) and Labour Manager. “In 2015 he purchased an old flower farm and then reclaimed the land, ultimately replacing the existing buildings with two 2.5 ha Venlo greenhouses.”
The first crops were planted in 2017, and Nicky and her husband Wade came on board in 2018. Nicky: “We’ve owned various farms ourselves, initially in Zimbabwe and since the early 2000s in Australia. We didn’t have specific experience in cucumbers, but that’s covered by our General Manager and Master Grower Patrick de Craen, who is a Dutchman with 35 years of cucumber experience. Patrick works on a fly-in, fly-out basis, but it’s not a problem that he works remotely for several weeks at a time because Wade is here as the full-time senior grower.” Although Nicky herself still does a little consultancy on the side, Family Fresh Farms has become pretty much a full-time job for her too.

Mini snack cucumbers

The farm produces around 100 million baby cucumbers per year, using a powdery mildew-resistant variety from Rijk Zwaan interplanted with another Rijk Zwaan variety. They are packed on site into 250g punnets, with an average of seven to eight pieces per punnet. “What we like about this variety is its ability to consistently produce the small size, adhering to the specs,” she states. All the baby cucumbers are sold to Perfection Fresh Australia, which markets them under the registered ‘Qukes’ brand and sells them into supermarkets nationwide as mini snack cucumbers. “To service south and west Australia, Perfection Fresh Australia has its own farm and also works with one other supplier in the south, so the majority of our cucumbers end up in the north – all the way up to Queensland – or stay here in the east,” she adds.
The site is based in Peats Ridge, which is approximately 60 km from Sydney. It is not only a great position in terms of the access to the sales markets, but also because of the climate, according to Nicky: “We have good elevation and are around 20 minutes from the coast, so even though the summers can get pretty hot here, the lovely sea breeze takes the worst of the heat out of the air in the afternoons. We can get some fierce storms though, which is why both our greenhouses were constructed with double glass for extra strength against hailstones.”

Perfect location

Another benefit of the location is the amount of light. “Patrick describes this as the perfect location for growing cucumbers because we get so much beautiful sunlight. It’s important to ensure that the light is evenly distributed throughout both greenhouses, of course, hence the diffused double AR glass and also white weed mat on the floor,” continues Nicky.
The cucumbers are grown all year round on a high-wire system in both 7-metre-high greenhouses, with a production peak in August and September, she explains: “The light levels start to increase again after 21 June, which is the shortest day for us. Thanks to being able to control our climate, we can really maximize our yields. This enables us to take advantage of higher prices through supermarkets due to lower product availability during these months.”

Data-driven approach

The climate is controlled by a Priva computer and the growers take a very data-driven approach, guided by the Plant Empowerment principles. “Patrick introduced us to the idea of precision growing and the importance of keeping the plant in perfect balance: stressed enough to keep producing but not so much that it impacts on quality. We’ve learned to trust the data rather than relying on your gut instinct. Plus it makes financial sense not to waste energy and resources, especially now that costs are rising.” Fogging is one of the tools in their toolbox for humidity and temperature control, she says, along with active and passive ventilation. “And since implementing Plant Empowerment, climate screens have become the most utilized tools for us to avoid wasting heat and preventing the cucumber heads from getting too cold.”

Eight crop changes a year

In total, the farm completes four 12-week cycles per year in each greenhouse. “This means we have eight crop changes a year we work to very high standards of hygiene and cleanliness, because I’m a firm believer that the most profitable greenhouses are the ones that are immaculate,” she adds proudly. “So we thoroughly sterilize everything at the end of each crop to avoid cross-contamination; we flush all the lines and drippers, wash the gutters, steam the floors and we even have our own Bogaerts roof washers so we can wash the ceilings ourselves! But thanks to our powerful and motivated teams, we have a really fast turnaround: we can usually go from harvesting to a spotless glasshouse in under 24 hours.”

Empowering people

The highly motivated workforce – which at its peak includes around 90 seasonal workers from the Pacific Islands – is not just important during crop changeovers, of course. “Cucumber is a highly labour-intensive crop, so people are a key element in our end results. We utilize the Priva FS Performance software to monitor all labour processes and we pay our workers by piece rate. To help them improve their efficiency, we focus heavily on training and development, and also on creating a positive team spirit, such as through regular morning meetings and the friendly rivalry between the teams in our two greenhouses,” explains Nicky. “As WHS and Labour Manager, one of my goals is to empower and upskill our people – men and women – to give them confidence, independence and make them leaders in their communities; it’s a life passion for me.”
A similar sense of team spirit resonates through the management team. “We all treat the company as if it’s our own business. Mr Harvey is happy to give us the freedom to do so, because he sees that we’re accountable to achieving the best results we can and continuously improving in all aspects of what we do.”

Drought risk

One example of this continuous improvement is in the area of sustainability, which according to Nicky is driven by the whole team. “We’re already doing the basics: we have solar panels, we have a biomass heating system which uses waste wood from forestry and includes a million-litre heat buffer tank. We also make careful use of nutrients and water. Water is increasingly a limiting factor in Australia and droughts are a risk for us, especially because of our fogging, so we have two water storage dams and we monitor their levels closely. As a back-up plan, we have an agreement with a neighbour to pump water from their natural spring,” she states.
“But we’re keen to create a better environment for our future grandchildren, so we’re always asking ourselves ‘What else can we do?’. For example, in terms of crop protection, Wade is 100% committed to our IPM programme, which has enabled us to eliminate the use of tough chemicals, plus we’re constantly on the lookout for resistant varieties that don’t compromise on yield,” adds Nicky.

Recycling initiatives

Additionally, the growers at Family Fresh Farms are heavily focused on reducing their environmental footprint. “When I first arrived here, I was shocked by the amount of plastic. Nowadays, all the clear plastic goes back for recycling. Over the last two years, we’ve saved 53 tons of plastic with all our initiatives,” she comments. “Moreover, we use biodegradable twines and clips, and we’ve recently found an approved composter to give our Grodan slabs a renewable home at the end of their life with us. Now, after we’ve removed the plastic sleeves, the rest of the substrate can be transformed into fertile compost.”

Automation options

The business has grown exponentially since 2018, but the current site offers no room for physical expansion. Therefore, the only way to further increase the turnover is through more efficiency. “That’s why we’re now looking for improvements that can give us one or two percent extra performance – but they are the hardest to obtain,” says Nicky. “Automation is one option. We have Ishida multi-head weighers to increase speed on our packing line, for example, and we keep a close eye on what else is on the horizon, such as the developments in robotic harvesters. But I think it will take some time before machines can work as quickly, effectively and also as flexibly as our people. For example, if we suddenly decide that extra efforts are needed in de-leafing, our team can turn on a dime and make it happen.”
On top of that, Nicky sees automation as somewhat of an ethical dilemma: “Besides producing good healthy foods, we’re passionate about changing people’s lives. For example, one of our workers wants to earn money to educate his children and give them the choices he never had. This company is a tool to enable that. If we halved our labour requirement by implementing automation, we would also halve the number of people we can help. Once again, Mr Harvey supports this position, providing that the business is financially viable.”

Benefits of LEDs

For the time being, they have identified another option for boosting the farm’s productivity, Nicky reveals: “We don’t currently use assimilation lighting, but over the past six months we have been looking into LEDs and are now close to going ahead. In combination with blackout screens, LEDs will enable us to maintain the light level whatever the weather outside – and this will not only be useful in the winter, but also on the fairly frequent overcast days in the summer. Besides increasing our production volumes, this will also be good from a labour planning and management perspective as it will give us more predictable and consistent yields. Plus we hope that the blackout screens will also help to minimize the extra energy costs.”
They are going into this project with their eyes wide open. “Patrick and Wade are both very aware that starting to use lighting requires you to challenge yourself on all your existing crop strategies,” claims Nicky. “But as well as being good for our production, this project will also be a new challenge for our growers and the whole team. It fits in with our focus on continuous improvement and will give our people something more to learn and perfect, and that makes me excited,” she concludes.

Text: Lynn Radford, images: Family Fresh Farms