03 Mar 2020

Creating success with snack cucumbers in Australia

“Balance is my story"

This is the remarkable story of Patrick de Craen, who came from The Netherlands to help create one of the most successful glasshouse operations just 60 minutes north of Sydney, Australia growing snack cucumbers at Family Fresh Farms.

Upon meeting Patrick, it is clear he is highly experienced and loves his work. Patrick has come a long way, geographically, career-wise and also personally. From humble beginnings, the son of cucumber growers joined the family business in Holland after deciding he wanted a career change. At the young age of 21 years, his father needed help due a hospitalisation and Patrick found himself responsible for running the family company.

After 9 years working with his father, the government purchased their farming land to build houses, which proved to be a great opportunity for his father, but not for Patrick who found himself out of work. Luckily, Patrick’s brother also had a cucumber farm close by, so the two worked alongside before later purchasing a brand new glasshouse together which continued successfully for another 10 years despite the challenges of the market, costs of production and pressure to compete with Spanish production especially in winter.

Smaller growers found it difficult to meet supply demands, compared to their Spanish competitors, so the brothers decided to sell the company. Patrick’s brother now works as a large grower in Spain, while Patrick went on to work for another company in Holland producing the first snack cucumbers from Rijk Zwaan.

"It was a risk to grow under artificial light. We took the risk but production costs were too high and the market was not ready for it. We learned a lot. And when you're struggling you learn more, so I use all that experience. I took all that experience with me.”

Beginning 2017, Patrick would actually start a new role as a consultant and advisor. Family Fresh Farms had recently completed their five hectare glasshouse facility and approached him with the opportunity to come to Australia and assist their grower for a few weeks. After speaking with his wife and daughter, a few months later, Patrick took the big step of moving ‘down-under’ to Australia without his family, which was a big sacrifice.

The Australian technology was more advanced to what was used in Holland at the time which Patrick found challenging. Two of the biggest differences were the use of diffused glass and high-tech misting systems used because of the hot summer climate. In Australia, high sunlight radiation is also an issue, and use of the diffused glass enables the spread of direct light to the plants, facilitating better growth.

“The first crop I grew over here was using diffused glass. I was confused and it took me a few months to change my mind and want to work with diffused glass. Now I never want to go back. I really like it.”

In 2018, the standard mini cucumber, or as they are known in Australia, Lebanese cucumbers were the main product produced by Family Fresh Farms. With the growth of the smaller, baby-sized snack cucumbers in Australia it was clear the focus for Family Fresh would be snack cucumbers. The result has been remarkable, becoming one of the most successful greenhouse operations in Australia servicing the growing demand for high quality, more convenient snacking varieties, which are sold and marketed in Australia under the Qukes brand by Perfection Fresh Australia.

Qukes cucumbers by Perfection Fresh Australia

In addition to adopting the latest technologies, Family Fresh Farms has also made changes to employee processes to assist in increasing overall productivity. Working at Family Fresh Farms are nine teams, consisting of eight to 10 people that rotate to plant and harvest the cucumbers. Training is provided in the form of a training video, with one full day training facilitated by a supervisor from Vanuatu. Incentives are available to reward high performing employees and team members are encouraged to bring a friend or family member to join the team. If they perform well, the sponsor is also rewarded with a bonus. Every Friday the best performing employee and the most improved employee of the week are acknowledged.

“I try to treat everyone fair. That’s my main goal”.

The new approach has improved productivity, staff morale as well as the employees’ wider community and Patrick believes the company can “change the lives of people” by doing this.

“We have an amazing team. We are running this business for 365 days. We’re picking every day, even Christmas and New Year's Day. Everyday we're picking fruits and it's working well.”

Patrick also worked with a lot of advisors over the years and believes that you learn from experience and from listening to those around you, but in the end “you've got to make your own decisions”. Every day Patrick observes the plants to see what is working and what isn’t.

“I’m really self-educated because my studies were not related.”

Patrick initially studied Business, but he “learnt the job really by doing it. I figured it out by asking my father and brother questions and after awhile I started thinking by myself”.

Acknowledging his wife Heleen and daughter Puck, Patrick says without them and the sacrifices they’ve made, he would not have been able to accept his dream job at Family Fresh Farms.

“Because they do not put any pressure on me, I can fully concentrate on the job. The travel is hard, but if you don't like your job, you don't like to fly. If you don't like to fly, you don't like your job. I have a very good life. I love the farm.” 

Patrick speaks to them twice a day about home and work life. Patrick now spends 3 weeks in Australia working and 3 weeks in Holland with his family. This chapter of Patrick’s life also showed that the training he put in place, worked even during his absence.

"The people got more responsibility and during my absence they did a brilliant job.”

It’s hard not to notice the similarities between growth in plants, and growth in life. As a grower, the balance exists between utilising the technology and tools we have access to in managing climate, but also allowing nature to do its job. Balance is the key.

Patrick de Craen

“The big difference between Australia and Holland is the changing of the climate by the day. All over the world, plant physiology is the same, but the circumstances are different. So you have to translate the circumstances to plant physiology. What we achieve in yields, I couldn't dream about and we are still improving every time. I'm really surprised about what’s possible. We produce so much more than my predictions.”

Patrick found several challenges coming from Holland to Australia, including climate and radiation and the extreme Australian Summers. One of the biggest growing challenges faced in his career, was due to the recent bushfires in Australia, resulting in excessive smoke containing ethylene. This caused the cucumbers to ripen and breakdown over 8-9 days as opposed to 21-22 days. Ethylene is also produced by tomatoes and storing cucumbers next to them, will lead to similar results.

Another big difference Patrick found in Australia was in propagation. A very large percentage of growers in Australia are not familiar with planting advanced plants. In Holland they use advanced plants so that presented Patrick’s very first challenge. Transporting plants across the country over multiple days during Summer time and then planting with high radiation lead to deterioration and so he discovered ways to manage this.

With 100% freedom, Patrick has been allowed to grow and focus on achieving success through the knowledge he has gained throughout his life. He now trains and teaches the growers to do things his way, but gives them freedom to also try things their own way to achieve the one aligned goal.

“My way is not the only way. I am most proud of the organisation and the team we created and the way we grow. People who came in as a grower can become a Labour Manager or the opposite. Create the job around the people. I see this project as the exam of my life.”

Patrick believes what he did well at Family Fresh Farms is to give everyone the chance to create their own job. In terms of growing, the company aims to use the least amount of chemicals possible in managing insects. Biological control and integrated pest management is the starting point.

When thinking of the future opportunities for snack cucumbers in Australia, Patrick believes that while the taste is often similar amongst varieties, there exists a big opportunity to still make a difference. The future of cucumbers may see additional sizes available to the consumer, similar to what we’ve seen with the success story of the snack cucumbers at Family Fresh Farms. In the future, we may also discover improved ways to achieve more sustainable growing.

"In the end it's all about balance and balance is my story”

Interestingly, Patrick believes that if he hadn’t been a grower, he may have been a chef “I like to cook”. His signature dish to cook would use “really fresh vegetables, meat and the ‘The Big Green Egg’ grilling technique”, where food is placed over the fire and cooked by direct exposure to the flame and heat. Patrick loves the simplicity of basic cooking using good ingredients.

“A good meal is simple. Mother nature gives us a lot.”