Strawberry Fields Forever
Hydroponic growing proves fruitful for the families behind much-loved Strawberry brand, Taste ‘N See

In 1990, family friends Merv & Marilyn Schiffke and Bryan & Jane Stothart bought adjacent properties, a few kilometres outside Caboolture, combining their production and expertise to grow the best strawberries possible.

Though they did not know it at the time, it was the beginning of a new brand of fruit that would gain favour in the retail market for its long-shelf-life, firm flesh and sweet flavour.

Shortly after launching their Taste ‘N See brand in 2003, both families were approached by Coles to buy their strawberries. Now their fruit is sold in 350g punnets across Australia’s east coast in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and north Queensland.

It’s a decision that has shown to be a masterstroke for the Schiffkes and Stotharts, paving a steady road for the second generation of their families to continue their legacy.

Laura Wells, 37, daughter of co-founders Merv and Marilyn, has taken on the responsibility of pioneering a new way of growing on-farm along with David Fairweather, 48, the son-in-law of Brian and Jane.

Together the enthusiastic duo have overseen the biggest transition in their brand’s history – from growing strawberries on the ground to a new hydroponic system on outdoor tables.

It’s a game-changer that has reduced the need for chemical use, minimised threats from pests, and transformed traditionally ‘back-breaking work’ into bench-level manual labour.

Laura said it has improved overall production from planting and picking, to an enhanced irrigation system.
“It’ll change the whole eco-system of our farm eventually, including our waterways. There’s no more overhead irrigation or T-Tape so it’s all injected and trickle-fed,” Laura said.

The computerised system consists of coconut substrate with drip irrigation on gutters, which ensures greater control over fruit quality and flavour.

David has seen first-hand its benefits to plant health.

“It’s a lot better for monitoring and employing beneficial insects, and trying to grow a bit more organic. You can change your plants quicker. The nutrient can be there in under 24 hours,” he said.

Laura agreed, “It’s also a lot easier for the workers because everything’s at the right height”.

“We had some ladies who have been with us for many years stop doing all of that work – planting, leafing, running, weeding; but because of the raised tables they’re able to return to more consistent labour,” she said.

This year about 60 per cent of the Schiffkes farm will move to table hydroponics. It’s a transition that’s no cheap feat, costing around $160,000 a hectare.

But the results speak for themselves and their low chemical-use is a draw card for customers who can rely on the quality and sustainability of their strawberries.

With a history in maintenance and machinery, working for the in-laws seemed an obvious match for David. After his late father-in-law Brian was diagnosed with cancer six years ago, he took the responsibility of the business firmly on his shoulders.

David acknowledges the road he’s taken and the experience he’s accrued not merely as serendipitous but almost in the way of divine blessing. His whole life, without him knowing, had prepared him for farm work.

His inquisitiveness was the catalyst for trialling the hydroponic growing system in 2017, which doubled the number of plants a hectare from 38,000 to 64,000.

“I’m a very proactive person so to me it was a worthwhile challenge. I like to be outside the square, I love new ideas,” David said.

“They’ve done it in Europe, in the southern states, in tunnel growing systems. But we’re growing in a subtropical climate so we’re finding a lot of differences,” he said.

Currently, the Stotharts grow 18 hectares of strawberries, including six hectares of tables. Meanwhile, the Schiffkes grow 20 hectares with 10 hectares of tables. The long term plan is to transition completely to hydroponics and move away from groundwork altogether.

It’s easy to see why Taste ‘N See have become leaders in the Australian strawberry industry, recently taking home the Weekly Times Coles 2017 Horticulture Farmer of the Year award. Quality in the field, quality in the shed and quality in the packing are mantras by which they have thrived.

Every new year, new runners are planted in two key varieties: festival (an all-rounder with consistent yield) and fortuna (an early fruit). Small batches of other varieties are constantly trialled, including red rhapsody, which has disease resistance and is a darker colour.

Between both families, they grow 2.5 million strawberry plants a year, and produce 1680 tonnes of strawberries annually. Their fruit is picked, packed and graded by hand and then checked by quality assurance staff, before being transported to Coles.

David said the packhouse is low-tech, relying on human judgement rather than computers.

“To grow good fruit costs a lot of money. It’s more time consuming because your pickers have be trained to pick more gently. If they are mishandled at any stage they can get bruised,” David said.

“And we look after our workers because if they’re not here, we’re in trouble,” he said.

Laura likens it to clockwork: “I always say you can have a really beautiful clock face but if there’s no cogs in there, what’s the point of it?”

Because of the value they place on their staff, they are in no shortage of acquiring and maintaining workers to plant from March to April and pick from April through to November. Backpackers are known to stay a season, then go and travel, and return for another six months on their second visa.

“We also push hard for locals because they’re essentially our backbone,” Laura said. “They’re coming in, they know what to do. They’re effective and they’re faster. That’s where we make out money and they make good money too.”
At their peak, Taste ‘N See employ around 400 workers. Around 30% of those workers are locals, many of who are returning for yet another season.

Strawberry production is not without its challenges which is why the business has previously employed the help of Hort360, a tool to reduce runoff improve water quality.

From managing water to controlling pests, the production cycles on both farms have to match to ensure consistent quality across the brand.

“Believe it or not it does run quite harmoniously,” Laura said.

“The biggest convergence is that we’ve got the same goal. We both want high quality fruit for our consumers,” David said.

“We grew up with that ethic passed down by our parents. It’s ingrained in us. As a kid I remember sitting in the shed, tasting dad’s strawberries and going “I don’t like block four dad, something’s wrong with block four’.” Laura said.

“At the end of the day if we want to want to eat it, we know our customers want to eat it too.”

Taste ‘N See is featured in the August 2018 edition of Fruit and Vegetable News.
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Written by Sam Allen-Ankins