‘Focus is on looking for efficiencies and further increasing our yields’

Roelf Schreuder, Production Director, NZ Gourmet:
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‘Focus is on looking for efficiencies and further increasing our yields’

New Zealand Gourmet was founded in 1985. It started off growing and exporting capsicums (bell peppers) to Japan, and blueberries and other crops such as strawberries, cherries and chillies were added later. Today, Japan continues to be the company’s main market for its tomatoes and capsicums, with Southeast Asia and Australia accounting for the majority of the rest of the sales. Overall, around 80% of the business comes from export.

NZ Gourmet is the sales company forming an umbrella brand for the produce grown by five different companies: ‘Paprika’, ‘Mokai’, ‘Blueberries’, ‘Waiuku’ and ‘Summerfruit’. “These companies are spread throughout New Zealand in order to make the most of the best growing areas and to support the consistent production and quality of the produce grown,” comments Roelf Schreuder, Production Director Protected Crops.

‘Paprika’ and ‘Waiuku’, totalling around 17 ha, are located close to Auckland which has a perfect climate for capsicums with sufficient light for year-round production. Both tomatoes and capsicums are grown at ‘Gourmet Mokai’, a 12 ha site which is half an hour north of Taupo.

What customers want

Staggered tomato and capsicum plantings enable the company to offer a year-round supply. “For tomatoes we have a summer and a winter planting, and for capsicums the first crop we planted is producing by the time we pull out the last one,” continues Schreuder. “Our capsicum yields differ as we do our research and then grow the ‘most suitable’ varieties for our markets. We are not directly focused on the highest-yielding varieties; we put quality and the required size first. For tomatoes, we grow different types and have different planting times, so there is a lot of variation in the yields.”

Overall quality and taste are the main priorities for the company. “As we have our own sales team, we have very short communication lines with our customers. This enables us to work closely with them to grow what they want; we decide on the right varieties together based on the desired sizing, colour, taste and shelf life. That’s the reason that we are still using smaller fruiting capsicum varieties, because they have the perfect characteristics and are the best fit for the Asian market,” he adds.

Geothermal heating

All produce is grown in conventional Venlo-style greenhouses, built by Gakon and Apex Greenhouses NZ. The company makes use of the very latest techniques to achieve a consistently high-quality product. For example, the Mokai facility is situated at an altitude of 300 metres and has very clear skies and cold nights, which makes it ideal for tomatoes. This 12 ha greenhouse complex is heated by geothermal energy. Hot water of 250°Celsius and under 50 bar pressure is used for heating, which can be challenging at times. Because there is no natural gas available on site, liquid CO2 is used.

The company sources its greenhouse equipment through several suppliers, often working with Ton Luiten Tuinbouw Techniek but also with Heecon in Belgium and a local company. “This firm, called Ftek, supplied most of our trolleys for crop work and set up systems for internal transport. We have conveyor belt systems developed by them on two of our sites,” continues Schreuder. “Thanks to that system, the fruits are on the grading machine within four to eight minutes of being picked, which has enabled us to make substantial savings on labour costs.”

Innovative techniques

As part of its commitment to quality, optimising production and saving energy, the company also actively explores new and innovative techniques to support its crop-growing activities. One example of is the collaboration with Ludvig Svensson. “We installed the first Svensson screen back in 2003, and in 2012 we started installing the Harmony climate screens in our capsicum and tomato production,” states Schreuder.

The climate screens provide high-grade light diffusion that actively scatters the sunlight to reach deeper and more evenly into the crop, resulting in healthier plants and accelerated production. “They provide good insulation and they can take the edge off the radiation and create diffuse light, which is important to us because we have many days of over 1,000 watts,” he says. “The effect of these screens gives a huge boost to our crops. We also get a lot of support from the supplier, through our contact with Ton Habraken, about how to use their products and to optimise the greenhouse climate we want to achieve. And energy costs are expected to rise considerably in New Zealand, so the use of climate screens will become ever-more important in the future.”

An LED first

Since August 2017, Schreuder has also been involved in another innovative project in collaboration with Signify (Philips Lighting). As a result, the company has installed the first known LED greenhouse system in Australia/New Zealand. “We were looking to increase our winter yields and to even out our labour requirements over the season, and lighting is a good way to do this. But in our climate, the extra heat produced by hybrid lighting would mostly have a negative effect as we would end up with too much heat. That’s why we chose the LED solution, which we are now using for our Campari tomatoes,” reveals Schreuder.

The lights are already outperforming his expectations. “We are ahead of what we expected production-wise. And we know that we can further improve and even increase our production, because we are still learning every day,” he adds enthusiastically. “We’re supported by Aart Slobbe and Piet Hein van Baar at Signify, and we have weekly contact on the growing strategy which is very helpful to get to know the system and get it working the way we want.”

Labour costs will rise 25%

In terms of the future, Schreuder anticipates that the labour costs in New Zealand will rise by approximately 25% over the next two to three years: “Therefore, our main focus in the short term is on looking for efficiencies and further increasing our yields per square metre.” If the company’s past innovative record is an indication of future performance, NZ Gourmet is almost certain to find what it is looking for.

Summary

The company New Zealand Gourmet sells produce grown all year round throughout New Zealand to customers in Japan, Southeast Asia and Australia as well as domestically. In its pursuit of a consistently high quality, energy savings and labour efficiency, the company takes a high-tech approach to crop production. This includes the use of an internal transport system, light-diffusing screens and, most recently, an innovative LED lighting project.

Text: Lynn Radford. Images: Signify and NZ Gourmet.

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