Southern Fresh hydroponics puts Waikato on the map
15 February 2022
Words by Geoff Lewis, photography by Trefor Ward
First published in the February 2022 issue of the NZGrower.
The past 20 years have been a busy time for the Dunn family. What began as a family cut-flower operation near Cambridge in the Waikato has blossomed into one of New Zealand's leading suppliers and processors of baby vegetables, fresh herbs and gourmet salad greens. GEOFF LEWIS reports.
Owned by Pat Dunn and his son Jeremy, Southern Fresh started as an outdoor growing operation and recently transitioned to indoor growing in one of the largest glasshouse operations in the Waikato – with options to expand.
The family’s growing operation has always had the advantage of its growing area being based on the highly productive Horotiu sandy loam – some of New Zealand's best horticultural soil. However, several consecutive winters of wet weather led to the decision to go indoors.
''The 2017–18 seasons affected our ability to supply,” says Jeremy, general manager of Southern Fresh. “We looked at our options and tried growing in other regions but concluded that we needed to put a roof over a big part of our production. Then we would not be subject to the vagaries of the weather. That was the only way we could get consistent supply for our customers. We now have seven hectares under cover.''
Key crops in the indoor farm include pak choy, herbs and lettuce. Indoor cropping manager, Greg Dunn, oversees production.
Outdoors, the Dunns grow a range of field crops across their six farm blocks (229ha), including baby spinach, mesclun, wild rocket, baby carrots, beetroot, turnips, leeks and fresh basil.
Outdoor growing is managed by Carl Hodgson. A Kiwi, also originally from Cambridge, who brings experience in horticulture from Queensland where he had been involved in growing many of the same crops. Brock Dunn, sales and marketing manager, says Carl's unique experience adds to their combined knowledge.
The 2020 lockdowns interrupted initial plans to bring in international experts to support the construction of the new 20,000 sqm glasshouse. Instead, the Dunns turned to local businesses and had the whole project consented and built in 12 months.
''We were committed in early 2019 and started the foundations in November with companies due to come from overseas and install the boiler and piping from Europe and Asia,” says Jeremy. “But Covid hit us, so we found the right people locally and got stuck in and did it ourselves.''
The Ministry for Primary Industries’ (MPI) Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures Fund (SFFF), has allowed Southern Fresh to trial new technologies and alternative ways to make the farm more sustainable, including the installation of LED (light-emitting diode) lighting and the use of CO2 from its natural gas heating system to boost plant growth. Water comes from bores and rainwater collected and stored from the facility's two-hectare roof.
Southern Fresh now has one of the few automated hydroponic operations in New Zealand.
''We have innovated and embraced modern technology which has enhanced our service promise to our customers,” Jeremy says. “We have built New Zealand’s first automated hydroponic system and grow the only Trio lettuce in our country.''
''The difference between indoor and outdoor is that inside we can produce crops for 52 weeks of the year with very little change to the length of growth period,” Greg says. “Outdoors, it's 15-week cycles with potential losses due to the environment, versus three to four weeks indoors. Annual production from one-hectare of hydroponics equates to the yield from 40-ha outdoors, which is a significant increase in crop yield.''
Brock says fresh vegetables have become the 'cuisine heroes' and central focus on the plate where in previous times they had simply been relegated to the edges. Baby spinach, at one time generally disregarded, has become a top-selling line.
''Our approach to growing is front to back – we believe that what we grow on our farms should be determined by what you want on your fork.''
The increasing sophistication of the Kiwi culinary market has been a driver behind product development. Hundreds of tonnes of fresh basil, grown indoors and outdoors, is processed and used in the manufacturing of food products by other enterprises.
Southern Fresh regards convenience of use and food-safety of its fresh products as high priorities. In their state-of-the-art packing facility the fresh baby vegetables and gourmet salad greens are washed and prepared to a standard where they can be used and consumed directly from the packaging.
Spotting a gap in the market, Southern Fresh began airfreighting twice weekly to top-end food service companies in the United Kingdom and now export to Taiwan and Singapore too. In the domestic space, produce from Southern Fresh indoor and field crops in Cambridge are harvested, washed, chilled, packed and air freighted around New Zealand – from Mangere to as far south as Queenstown – and all within 24 hours. While Southern Fresh does not deal directly with restaurants, it supplies food service companies and specialist retail markets such as Moore Wilson’s, Farro and more recently, Progressive Enterprises and Foodstuffs.
Taking a family approach to its staffing, Southern Fresh employs 120 full-time staff, increasing to 160 employees at peak season including workers from more than a dozen nationalities. An ownership mindset and pursuit of excellence is engrained in their culture and is evident in their daily operations.
''We have good relationships with other growers around New Zealand and in the UK and Europe. We are regularly in contact with them to discuss global trends as well as anything from harvesting to seed suppliers, packaging and labour.''
Meanwhile, the Dunns have their eyes on the future and have recently gained resource consent to construct a further four hectares of covered growing area.