Nation’s largest glasshouse operation growing vegetables hydroponically, still a family affair

Under a vast expanse of glass panels, tomato vines up to 15 metres tall, laden with ripening fruit, wind their way upward. A newly ripened bunch is picked from each plant every week.

“We use about 20 per cent of the water that you would need per kilo for tomato production, for example, in the field, and we’re not degrading the soil,” company chief executive Mike Nichol said.

That’s because there is no soil. The plants are grown hydroponically.

They thrive on a nutrient-rich solution that is circulated through kilometres of irrigation tubes that reuses 95 per cent of the water in the system.

The largest glasshouse operation in Australia
Protected from the extremes of weather, these indoor, pampered plants are kept at an optimal temperature to bear fruit almost all year round. The air from the heating and cooling system is also re-circulated.

This is food production on an industrial scale, making it the largest glasshouse operation in Australia and one of the most efficient.

The facility at Warragul, east of Melbourne, can produce 80 kilograms of fruit per square metre.

It all began with a quest to grow a tastier tomato.

Flavorite, the company behind it, was formed in 1993 by Mark Millis and Warren Nichol, two veterans of Melbourne’s wholesale fruit and vegetable market.

Mark Millis grew field tomatoes as a sideline.

He was unimpressed by the quality of commercially grown tomatoes and was determined to produce more flavoursome fruit.

“The field guys were focusing on yield over taste, and so he said I’m going to make a difference in that area and produce something that tastes good,” said Mark Millis’s son Chris, now the company’s chief operating officer.

“One of our slogans on our packaging is ‘the way tomatoes used to taste’, and we believe that taste is very important,” Mr Nichol said when Landline first visited in 2003.

Back then, greenhouse-grown produce was a tiny segment of the market. It was more costly to grow than conventional field crops, and hydroponics, which was still in the early stages, had a high failure rate.

Truss tomatoes that ripen on the vine to make them sweeter were almost unheard of.

But Mark had the skill to grow them, and Warren had the expertise to market them.

Produce all year round
The pair could see the future; better quality fruit that could be produced indoors for most of the year, though an early obstacle was growing enough to supply major retailers.

“It took a bit of a punt to go and spend money on infrastructure to produce bigger volumes to get it to that critical mass where we had enough supply to be able to satisfy their needs,” said Warren’s son Mike Nichol, the company’s chief executive.

In the early days, the company relied on additional growers to meet their customers, but it’s now almost self-sufficient and grows a range of other crops.

“We diversified into capsicums, cucumbers and eggplant,” said Mr Nichol.

But the biggest trend is for small, bite-sized fruit and vegetable varieties, increasingly popular for salads, snacks and lunch-box fillers.

“The snacking section of the market is huge, the amount of varieties, different shapes and sizes and colours and things like that,” said Grant Nichol, who oversees the company’s produce at the Melbourne Fresh Market.

From four hectares of experimental plastic greenhouses in 2003, the business now has a massive area under glass at Warragul and at three other sites in north-eastern Victoria.

“Right now, we’ve got a total of 65 hectares,” Chris Millis.

There are plans to expand to 100 hectares within five years, much of it geared towards the smaller varieties, such as cherry and mini-Roma tomatoes.

The business now employs a thousand people in its glasshouses, packing sheds and offices.

Family operation
Peak growing season is fast approaching, and further expansion will mean the company needs another 380 workers in the coming weeks.

Despite the rapid growth, the business is still family-owned and run. Second and third generations are now part of the operation.

Sadly, neither founder lived to see the business achieve its most recent spectacular success. Warren Nichol died in 2008, and Mark Millis in 2019.

Both families are proud of their fathers’ legacy and stick to the values and principles that helped build the company’s success.

“Seeing the way those two guys worked together, made decisions together, sort of really helped us,” said Chris Millis.

“Innovation, sustainability, and customer focus, so trying to really build something that’s there long term and for generations to come.”

“People are looking for great tasting food, and that’s what we think we can provide. From big tomatoes all the way down to little tomatoes,” said Mike Nicol.

“There’s a lot more to come.”