User story

Family Fresh Farms

Throughout 2023, the Plant Empowerment philosophy helped Wade Mann, senior grower at Family Fresh Farms in Australia, to “refine the curve” for the farm’s high-wire cucumber production activities. Attending the Plant Empowerment Summer School in 2023 gave him even more confidence in analysing all the crop data and applying the principles. “Above all, this has improved the uniformity of our cucumbers, which has made our whole process more labour-efficient,” says Wade. 

Family Fresh Farms is one of only three growers of snack cucumbers in Australia. The company has two 2.5-hectare high-tech glasshouses located in Peats Ridge and produces around 100 million mini cucumbers per year. To fulfil distribution agreements to all major supermarkets and greengrocers around the country, a consistent yield of high-quality fruits is essential. When Wade Mann discovered the Plant Empowerment book, a whole new world opened up to help him achieve this. 

“The book has become my ‘bible’: my go-to reference source whenever I see something that’s not making sense in our crop strategy,” comments Wade. “The philosophy revolves around the importance of keeping all aspects of the plant in perfect balance – not only temperature and humidity, but also nutrition and irrigation – so that the crop is stressed enough to keep producing but not so much that it impacts on quality. Rather than reading it from start to finish, I dip into the chapters depending on what I need. Because everything is interlinked, you get through the whole book eventually. By incorporating the Plant Empowerment insights into your strategy, you can manipulate the crop to perform better based on data.” 

Screening was a big revelation

“Initially, the biggest revelation for me was the benefit of using climate screens to influence the radiation-temperature ratio (RTR). That’s still a very key part of our whole strategy, especially to reduce irradiation at night. It has enabled us to overcome premature crop termination and extend the cycle all the way to the end. Plus it makes financial sense not to waste energy and resources, especially now that costs are rising,” he continues.

“Over the past year, above all I’ve become more confident in my ability to use all the available data to refine the curve rather than having peaks and troughs. Now, if something unexpected happens, such as a sudden spike in temperature, I examine the data and trust the Plant Empowerment principles to guide me. I also make the necessary adjustments gradually rather than panicking and overcorrecting. It’s like learning to drive; I’ve now got a feel for the Plant Empowerment ‘car’ and am less heavy-handed on the ‘steering wheel’!” he adds.

More confidence in own ability 

Attending the Plant Empowerment Summer School in June 2023 helped him to develop that extra confidence, according to Wade: “I heard about the Summer School by coincidence, and I was immediately keen to attend to help me take my understanding of the Plant Empowerment principles to the next level.”

One change Family Fresh Farms has made over the past year has been to install an irradiation sensor and a PAR sensor underneath the screens in the greenhouse. “This gives us more reliable real-time data about heat loss and actual light levels as the basis for better and more reactive decision-making in our screening and RTR strategy. The Summer School really helped me to understand how to read these and other sensors to extrapolate what is relevant from all of that. The key is to focus on staying within the ranges to maintain the balances between the various elements of crop production,” explains Wade. 

Magic number

An important takeaway from the Summer School for Wade related to the vapour pressure deficit (VPD), he says: “I learned you should never allow the VPD to drop below 0.2 or 0.3 at night. Otherwise, the crop won’t be active enough to maintain the calcium uptake right to the top, leading to deficiencies. When I got back, I watched that ‘magic number’ and saw that it did drop too low a couple of times. So we’ve now adjusted our horizontal airflow fan for convection and upped our pipe heating to keep the pre-night/early morning activity going, and we’re already seeing results.”

So what have been the concrete benefits of following the Plant Empowerment principles over the past year? “The holistic approach to climate control, irrigation and nutrition leads to better plant resilience and therefore more uniform, high-quality fruits. This continuity and consistent quality is essential for us to compete in the market. Our percentage of first-grade fruits has increased from 85% to 95%, which is a huge gain,” states Wade. “The added advantage of this is that uniform fruits are easier to harvest – our harvesting productivity has risen from 45kg to 65kg per hour – and also easier to grade and pack, which has greatly improved our labour efficiency.”

International benchmarking

Another eye-opener from the Summer School was the outcome of the light use efficiency (LUE) calculations. “This formula enables you to see how many grams of fruit you produce based on the units of light available. It’s a good way of benchmarking yourself, and it was encouraging to see that we’re not doing too badly compared with European growers,” he continues.

That’s just one example of how Wade benefited from the international nature of the Summer School. “It was an excellent chance to meet growers from all over the world – from the Netherlands, Armenia, Poland, Slovakia, the USA and China, to name but a few – and everyone’s contributions were valuable,” he recalls. “We all shared an eagerness to progress our knowledge by challenging ourselves and one another, which led to some stimulating high-energy discussions. The focus was on sharing knowledge as peers, not competitors, and there was no need to feel embarrassed about asking questions. The atmosphere was very supportive and interactive, thanks not least to the experienced, engaging and approachable presenters.”

Theoretical and practical insights at Summer School

Besides all the theory-driven sessions, the participants also gained practical insights outside of the classroom on a number of visits, including to a rose grower, a tomato greenhouse and the GreenTech trade fair. The attendees and presenters have stayed in touch with one another ever since through a specially developed platform where they can upload progress reports, ask questions and share tips. So which specific aspect of the Summer School was most valuable to Wade? “I couldn’t possibly single out one aspect. Just like Plant Empowerment itself, it’s the sum of all the parts – the participants, the presenters and the organisers – that made it such a great event,” he replies.

Part of the Plant Empowerment family

Wade was so invigorated after the event that he is keen to actively share his perspectives on Plant Empowerment with other growers in Australia, including through the Protective Cropping Australia association, by welcoming not only current industry peers but also the next generation – students and interns – to Family Fresh Farms. He also spoke at a recent one-day Plant Empowerment event in Australia. “I’m a passionate advocate of controlled-environment agriculture and see it as the way forward for year-round food production in the face of current and future climate challenges. As a young industry, Australian protected cropping is holding its own, but advancements are moving so fast that it can be hard to keep up. Not every grower has the time or the money to travel abroad to gain new insights. If I can help to bring some of those worldwide insights to them instead, supported by my own real-life experiences, I’m happy to do so,” he states. 

“I’m definitely not a Plant Empowerment expert and I still have a lot to learn myself, but I no longer feel like a beginner either. I wholeheartedly believe in the power of the philosophy to help Family Fresh Farms be at the top of our game. This holistic approach directly supports our mission of being a globally respected food producer that embraces the most environmentally sustainable, socially responsible and economically viable growing and management practices. I’m proud to be part of the Plant Empowerment family,” concludes Wade.