Cool for the Summer
Sunny Coast lettuce growers give business a fresh facelift

Tucked away in the beautiful palms of the Sunshine Coast, a small hydroponic farm is undergoing a leafy-green makeover.

Marnee Stinton, 52, has nothing short of revitalised Salads at Palmwoods in under three months flat alongside a mostly new crew of farm hands.

Together they’ve laid a new foundation for growing lettuce and herbs across a hectare of hydroponic tables mere months after Marnee purchased the business with her husband Nick.

She said it was a classic case of the farm coming on to the market at the same time Nick was asked to apply for his dream job.

“We thought either both will work out or neither. And of course, they both did,” she said.

Currently production counts for 75% lettuce and 25% herbs, including mint, basil and thai basil, chives, and two types of parsley: birdleaf and the curly.

In picking up where the previous owners left off, Marnee is aiming for a 100% quality product and second-to-none customer service.

Since hitting the reset button, she’s slowly but surely moving away from the day-to-day side of managing, leaving that role to Farm Manger Blake Schimek who came recommended by the previous owners.

Blake said it was clear to him the business needed re-organising.

“This used to be a family run business and it worked well. But to expand, a new structure had to be put in place,” he said.

With a background in marketing, currently studying a Diploma in Horticulture and having learnt the business of building from his father, Blake is in good stead to oversee farm operations. In his own words, you can’t just be good at one thing on a farm.

He’s especially proud to continue the previous owners’ long-standing relationship with local IGAs including Wises Rd, North Buderim and Bli-Bli, Spas in Woombye and Palmwoods, and local Foodworks supermarkets. They also supply fruit shops including Fresh Fruit in Maroochydore, local restaurants including Rick’s Garage in Palmwoods and other customers such as the The Deli Company in Maroochydore.

“Our local supply is right across the Sunshine Coast,” Blake said.

“They know they can trust us and the quality of our product because our lettuce can go from growing to customer within 3 hours.

“The shelf life of lettuce can change so much with the weather so we get in early to pick and pack before the sun comes out.”

Blake said the hydroponic system does an excellent job of adapting to most weather events. Just don’t mention the word hail.

Even in the case of natural disaster, Blake said they’re in a better position to replant than most farm operations that have to re-cultivate their soil.

“Lettuce grows quickly so if we do have an issue, we can rectify it really fast,” he said.

“The hydroponic tables also allow us to grow a lot in a small amount of space. At the moment we’re growing across just over one hectare and that counts for up to 112,000 heads of lettuce or bunches of herbs.”

On the monitoring side of things, another employee Rachael Hills has kicked off the revamp with great momentum, planting thousands of heads of lettuce and clearing overgrown tables for the next crop.

Having previously worked in retail and wholesale nurseries, Rachael prefers the hydronic setup at Palmwoods.

“Wholesale is really hard work. This is so easy in comparison,” she said.

“I used to be lifting big tubs of produce and plants up to ten feet tall.

“When I’m working on the hydro benches I don’t have to do any serious bending or heavy lifting.”

Just two months into the job and Rachael already has the greenest thumbs, fingers, and toes of anyone, according to Marnee. Although new to farm-work, Rachael’s hugely aided by her history working in parks and gardens for Brisbane City Council and accruing certs I, II, III and IV in horticulture. Besides these qualifications, she emanates an inherent talent and enthusiasm for growing, having always been a natural horticulturalist.

In her spare time, she grows oregano and mint in edible hanging baskets which she hopes to dangle outside the farm office someday soon.

With summer around the corner, and consumer appetite for leafy greens on the rise, its mere weeks before her skills come into full swing.

Rachael said the hydroponic system makes the prospect of irrigation a whole lot easier, describing the process of using recycled water as ‘almost failsafe.’

“The fertiliser runs all day long, it flows down the tanks and gets run back up. PH and EC levels are monitored regularly. It’s a constant so you don’t have to worry about the moisture in the ground,” she said.

Marnee said another big advantage of hydroponics is it reduces the risk of soil borne pests and diseases.
“The quality is clear in the crunch of our salad,” she said.

“I had no concept of how nice a cos leaf was until I cut one up and had an individual leaf.”

“So we’re really working on having a high percentage of water in the cos when it gets to the customer because this makes such a difference.”

Along with delivering a top-quality product, Marnee likes to give back to the community in more ways than one.

Salad at Palmwoods proudly supports Ozharvest, by donating produce to the food rescue charity twice a week, and Miss Piggy’s Lair, a guinea pig adoption charity, whose guinea pigs love their lettuce.

Marnee is also the treasurer for the Mooloolah Waterwatch and Landcare, home of Mooloolah Valley Native Nursery, whose profits go back into education through workshops and classes.

“We have a native nursery and a bio control unit that breeds bugs which we release into the environment to get rid of two noxious weeds, the Cats claw creeper and Madeira vine. We also do tree planting and rehabilitate the land,” Marnee said.

“It’s a super organisation and I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of it.”

As her own business grows, Marnee plans to build a state of the art packing shed to maximise production, minimise temperature change and gain her own office space.

“Lettuce slows down in the winter months. So we’ve got to account for that. But were considering some other vegetables too and we’ve already begun trialling Tuscan kale.”

“If we should expand rapidly, then of course we should need a bigger management team. We hope the people with us will grow as the business does.”

“Right now it’s about making more people on the Sunshine Coast aware they can get lush, local lettuce and herbs, which were only picked this morning. ”

Written by Sam Allen-Ankins
Photography by Sam Allen-Ankins

Salads at Palmwoods is featured in the November 2019 edition of Fruit and Vegetable News.