Growing 100 million snacking cucumbers a year is no mean feat. But learning and adjusting their growing regime according to the Plant Empowerment principles has helped Wade and Nicky Mann fine-tune their Qukes production and better adapt it to Australia’s changing climate.
Family Fresh Farms
as their ‘bible’
Wade and Nicky both describe the Plant Empowerment book as “their bible” and Patrick has helped them to embed Plant Empowerment’s principles into the growing techniques at Family Fresh Farms. Nicky explains that while Patrick is in The Netherlands, she and Wade run the operation with the help of a fantastic crew of people.
About the growers
Parents and carers know only too well how difficult it can be to get children to eat fruits and vegetables, which is why the popularity of mini cucumbers is arguably a cause for celebration. So great is the demand for these little healthy snacks in Australia that the team at Family Fresh Farms in Peats Ridge, New South Wales, industriously produces 12 million punnets a year of Class 1 Qukes snacking cucumbers, which are packed on site in 250-gram punnets.
Leading the team are senior grower Wade Mann and his wife Nicky – Family Fresh Farms’ labour manager. They joined the company in 2018 shortly after its formation in 2017. Then, the well-known Australian entrepreneur Gerry Harvey set up the facility on the site of a former flower farm.
With a talent for recruiting the best people for the job, Harvey also employed Patrick de Craen as master grower. Wade explains: “Patrick’s been growing cucumbers for more than 30 years and is just incredibly focused on cucumber production. He’s been a good mentor to me.”
He adds: “It’s quite an interesting setup because Patrick manages the business on a ‘fly in, fly out’ basis. This means that when goes back to The Netherlands (his home country), he’s in constant contact with a lot of the implementation partners and members of Plant Empowerment. When he returns to Australia he often suggests ‘you know, we should try this.’ The company is therefore aligned with Plant Empowerment’s principles.”
Growing mini cucumbers can be challenging
Wade notes that the mini cucumbers are produced 52 weeks a year, with four crops grown in each of Family Fresh Farms’ two state-of-the-art greenhouses. He says: “We are on a bit of a runaway train because we are growing mini cucumbers all the time. We have a summer, an autumn, a winter, and a spring crop. Each of those crops is 12 weeks long, so we have 48 weeks of production and a week in between each season where we pull out the old crop and plant the new one. So, we work with strict timings.”
Admittedly, growing mini cucumbers can be just as challenging as getting children to eat their greens. Mann explains: “The cucumber heads are very sensitive. You have to apply an element of delicacy to them just to make sure that you’re able to continue your production for that whole 12 weeks. So, having come from a background in floriculture and soft fruit production, there’s a lot that we’ve learned very quickly about this crop.”
Staying on course
Nicky explains that while Patrick is in The Netherlands, she and Wade run the operation with the help of a fantastic crew of people. “We’ve got a local team of about ten people, including ourselves, and we use seasonal workers. So, we have 80 people employed from Vanuatu,” she says.
While Wade likens year-long mini-cucumber production to being a runaway train, it’s also a train that needs to stay on course and not derail. “With mini cucumbers, we need to be extremely careful that we don’t move too far to the left or the right of our given course. To achieve this, we are using a holistic approach to maintain optimal growth conditions. This is because the sum of the parts are far greater than one individual growth factor – such as light, CO², water, or temperature.”
He adds: “One of the Plant Empowerment principles that Patrick has really drummed home is that it’s not about what we feel is right for the crop, it’s about using real-time data, so that we know exactly what the temperature or the radiation levels are, or exactly how much water we’ve irrigated, for instance. These numbers give us something to work from going forward. So, our strategies are very finely tuned, and obviously, data-driven. As a result of that, we’re able to stick to a given course.”
Maintaining a balance between leaves and fruit
Wade explains that, in order to produce a healthy crop, he and the team are aiming to achieve a balance between vegetative (creating leaves) and generative growth, which is creating the flowers and the fruit. He adds: “We don’t want to just be producing leaves, because that type of growth produces no fruit. But if we produce too much fruit, we have too high a fruit load and the crop runs out of ‘legs’ – it only has enough ‘legs’ to last for nine or 10 weeks, rather than the full 12-week production cycle. And so, all of our decision making is based on achieving that balance.”
One of the ways in which Family Fresh Farms maintains this balance between plant growth and fruit set is by ensuring a steady Ratio between Temperature and Radiation (RTR). This means, for example, that on brighter days, the average daily temperature should be higher. “That tells us, when we read the crop – analysing its growth and counting the number of leaves – whether we’re on track or off track.”
A new regime
With the importance of the RTR and the sensitivity of snacking cucumber plants in mind, Plant Empowerment’s implementation partner Ton Habraken, Svensson’s greenhouse climate expert, and Family Fresh Farms’ master grower de Craen, have helped the staff learn how to use climate screens strategically.
For example, the screens can be opened as the sun starts to go down to maximise the radiation effect. “But then sometimes at night, when we have a very clear sky, we actually lose a lot of the greenhouse heat. And so now our philosophy is to close the screens to reduce that lost heat. And what we’re ultimately doing is saving energy because we are not turning on our boiler to try and give the greenhouse heat again.”
Wade explains that this strategic utilisation of the screens is helping achieve two things: firstly, they’re successfully reducing the greenhouse’ heat and excess radiation during the day and secondly, during the early evening, they’re reducing the irradiation, also called ‘heat emission’.
He admits: “This has been quite a new strategy for me. When I was a rose grower, I used to leave the screens open at night to try and achieve a cooling effect to get what I thought to be a better-quality rose plant. But I think in effect what I was doing was losing quite an extensive amount of energy. We use our screens a lot, they’re frequently moving so that we can achieve what we need to.”
Nicky adds: “At Family Fresh Farms Patrick would leave the screens closed to quite late in the morning. And I was like: what are you doing? You’re missing out on the sun. And he explained: ‘No, I’m doing this to keep the warmth in because if we open the screens, we lose all of our heat, and the cold air will come down onto the heads of the cucumbers – and they don’t like cold air.”
“We get the temperature above and below the screens the same and then open the diffused screen up. At that stage, our plants are nice and warm, and they’ll utilise the sunlight better because they’re at the right temperature – rather than opening them and allowing the plants to get too cold before they’re hit by the sun.”
Coping with challenging weather
Knowing how to use the screens in this way has helped Wade and Nicky cope with New South Wales challenging weather this year. Wade says: “We’ve had periods where it’s been overcast, but then suddenly the sun came out, and the greenhouses experienced very high radiation. And then it was overcast again, the sun disappeared, and the heads of the plants became cold. And it often briefly rained, and then the sun came out once more.”
“So, we were using our shading screens all the time to try and reduce the heat of the radiation but reduce the loss of heat through heat emission. It’s been about making sure we’re not putting any unnecessary stress on the crop, otherwise we lose that vegetative-generative balance.”
Growing in optimum conditions
Nicky reflects: “We’ve both learned a lot. The Plant Empowerment philosophy is just about using your energy a little bit more. Growers spend a lot of money creating heat, so they need to actually utilise it to the best of their ability, or they’ll lose it.”
She concludes: “If you’re ensuring that plants are growing in optimum conditions that they are just like well-trained athletes – they’re eating well, living well, they don’t get sick and they can perform well.”