14 Sep 2020

At the forefront of innovation with Sun City Produce

Caption: Sun City Produce - Bao la and Bao Duy with cucumber variety RZ4.

Bao was only 2 months old when his family migrated to Australia after being in a refugee camp in Thailand for 2 years. Upon arriving in Australia, his family moved to the coastal city of Geraldton in Western Australia, approximately 424 kilometres north of Perth, along with another group of refugees.

Farming was an obvious choice for Bao’s parents as it didn't require fluency in English. They believed in having a simple life, growing crops and sending them to market. “They needed to find work where they could and farming also required less qualifications”. His parents began their farming journey as labourers, rented and leased their own farm and found that things were harder than expected, as competition was fierce.

It is still pretty hard, nowadays with high competition and demand volatile at the moment. We thought it would be easy and had the opportunity to grow with technology, but it’s still difficult.”

Bao is a geotechnical engineer by trade, his brother is an accountant and his sister is a medical scientist. Bao worked as an engineer for 8 years before returning the farm. He has now also spent 8 years in farming. “I’m also Chairman of the Midwest Horticulture Group which is a good group of 20 – 25 family owned businesses. We're not as big as Carnarvon. They have about 100, but we are also one of the largest producers of cucumbers in Australia for the winter season”.

When asked if being a technical engineer has helped in his farming career, Bao stated that the discipline has helped him understand the benefits of “software and technical skills in improving efficiencies and establishing a professional approach towards paperwork, business development, marketing and employee management”.

When asked what an average day looks like on the farm, Bao said his brother “does the harvesting, beginning his day around 4.00am, pruning, harvesting, packing, picking.” Bao starts his day by ”checking and fixing irrigations, checking fertiliser is consistent and the status of trials.“ He also does the paperwork, conducts research, organises any repairs needed and often travels to conduct research.

Sun City Produce - Be (Dad), Cam (sister), Nghi (Mum), Bao Duy and Bao la (brothers).

Caption: Left to right - Be (Dad), Cam (sister), Nghi (Mum), Bao Duy and Bao la (brothers).

Bao took part in the Nuffield Australia Farming Scholarship, a program that awards selected primary producers with the unique opportunity to travel overseas and study an agricultural topic of choice. Bao travelled with a group to tour universities, cooperatives and other agriculture and farming enterprises, then elected to focus his personal research project on efficient practices in low tech greenhouses including hydroponics. Bao chose to visit Rijk Zwaan breeding stations in Spain and Holland to view trials and see advanced breeding techniques in action.  

Through his research, Bao found that hydroponics resulted in improved quality of produce. He saw some low-tech greenhouses were converting to hydroponics, was impressed by their results and chose to do the same here. After discussing these thoughts with Rijk Zwaan team members, Bao was then introduced to some Vietnamese growers who worked with hydroponics.

They later hosted him at their farms and Bao was able to see first hand how they were converting from low-tech greenhouses to hydroponics and the efficiencies that could be achieved.

Bao says this opportunity “opened my eyes. It gave us “the confidence to explore hydroponics as a viable option and opportunity for growth. I was willing to take some risks”.

After growing in the ground for over 30 years, in 2020 Sun City Produce invested in hydroponics, growing Rijk Zwaan truss varieties. Starting by converting one farm initially, trials are now underway. Over the next 2 – 4 months, they will start seeing results. “We will continue trialling now and also trailing some varieties during winter.” It’s a significant financial investment, but if hydroponics work well for them, Bao says they may also look at converting their second farm in the future. 

They use desalinated water and are now competitive in this market, creating demand using sustainable and efficient methods. In a competitive market, “It’s hard to keep your business going and this gives us a point of difference. I think we were always going to do it, but seeing the Rijk Zwaan breeding stations overseas and meeting the Vietnamese growers gave us the confidence to go ahead and try it, rather than waiting a couple more years.”

Three to four years ago, cucumber green mottle mosaic virus (CGMMV), which belongs to the family of viruses known as Tobamoviruses wiped out some crops in Geraldton. As a very important disease for cucumber growers, CGMMV resistance is a key focus for Rijk Zwaan's breeders. Sun City previously grew Scotinos RZ for 12 years and were happy with the fruit size, but couldn’t take the risk CGMMV posed. This season they have replaced Scotinos RZ and now only grow Rijk Zwaan cucumber varieties resistant to CGMMV. They have switched to the new Rijk Zwaan varieties, Tantalos RZ and Maritmo RZ which both feature the BlueLeaf trait as well as CGMMV resistances.  In the first year they saw a big difference with BlueLeaf and growing these crops.

Bao continually observes other varieties coming through from Rijk Zwaan and is currently monitoring results of Insula RZ, which also has Blueleaf and CGMMV resistance, and is being grown in Adelaide. Sun City have just planted Insula RZ for the first time and are looking forward to seeing the fruit quality.

Fusarium represents another reason why Sun City is moving towards hydroponics. In 2019, after growing in the ground at one farm for over 30 years, Fusarium affected Sun City crops. “We had a bad year. We're still trying to catch up.” One way in which they are now combating this disease is by undertaking trials of Fusarium resistant varieties including Forada RZ along with managing general crop hygiene.

In the tomato category, Bao says Endeavour RZ truss tomatoes are “working really well, with better fruit colour, consistent size and we’re quite happy with Endeavour”. They plan to continue with this variety, having just planted a few weeks ago. Bao sees Endeavour RZ as his favourite truss variety and believes it should do well with hydroponics also.

Approximately 50% of Sun City’s crops are from Rijk Zwaan, reinforcing the strong relationship established and Rijk Zwaan’s seed quality. Trials of tomato variety Adventure RZ are underway for the summer market. Sun City is also undertaking capsicum trials with variety, Fabris RZ that has provided them with a smaller sized capsicum option. Of the relationship, Bao says “what definitely helped us was when Rijk Zwaan introduced us to other growers like those from Vietnam. I could ask questions and see what they were doing with their crops. That really opened my eyes. It was really good and gave us the confidence to try some of their methods. With Rijk Zwaan, there is constant communication and we are willing to take risks and trial new varieties.”

Bao says “you need a point of difference to grow quality produce and pursue opportunities including marketing to export markets. We need to keep our quality up. I think there is a trend towards growing with hydroponics and using desalinated water will give us better quality produce. We aim to pursue efficient opportunities, while maintaining consistent produce.”

It’s a significant investment, but Bao believes being young, interested in computers and technological advancements, as well as being willing to take some risks will go far in ensuring the farm can constantly evolve in efficient ways, while staying “on track”.

“moving into [hydroponics] will help with some of the challenges that may come, like environmental challenges including climate change, while being sustainable. I think with hydroponics it's more efficient. You can monitor what the plants need and stay on track to determine soil moisture and nutrient levels, providing more control where needed.”.

Ideally, consumers will focus on maintaining a healthy lifestyle, including healthy eating and Sun City Produce want to be at the forefront of providing healthy and nutritious options. The key to success appears to be in finding good quality produce and a buyer that's willing to pay for that quality. Sun City Produce try wherever possible, to use natural methods to ensure quality products are available for consumers. This often comes at an increased cost to them such as methods including integrated pest management, “using good bugs to control bad bugs”.

Bao mentioned “if people are overproducing low quality produce, it brings down the price of high quality products.” Often consumers make their decisions based on price, whereas if they paid a slightly higher price, they may be rewarded with a higher quality product featuring better flavour and longer shelf life. “We have to keep an eye on the market and be cautious. You always have to look a step ahead of you so you don't end up getting blindsided. I think that's wise. I look forward to seeing what we can put in place now to address any future projections, like what we’re doing with hydroponics and trialling different varieties. We take calculated risks.”

Sun City Produce - 2. Bao la and Bao Duy with cucumber variety RZ4

Caption: IMG_8253 - From left to right - Bao la and Bao Duy with cucumber variety RZ4.

When asked about what he enjoys most about his work, what motivates him to get up each day and work in an environment that can be challenging, Bao says he loves working in nature, in a “calm atmosphere, watching things grow, trialling new crops and growing good quality, healthy produce” for consumers.

Something Bao focusses on is developing good business skills. Some farmers lack the business skills necessary to grow and develop. “My parents always thought you just grow it and then you sell it.” These days, growers often need to become project managers, requiring skills including marketing, accounting, administration and human resource management. They need occupational health and safety skills to look after and manage workers, ensuring everyone is working in a safe environment. Bao believes growers need to be innovative and operate efficiently and get the message out there that “cheaper produce doesn’t necessarily equate to better value”.

Bao is constantly reviewing and assessing their farming approach and methods and aiming to benchmark against others performing well in the industry. “It can be a difficult at times and hard to know if the public appreciates everything that goes into producing good quality produce and what it costs farmers, but you still want to keep it going because that's your only source of income for that that month or that season. Every year we're trying to find something that we can grow in summer, but it does get very hot here. Maintaining cash flow is always a consideration too”.

If he wasn’t in this industry, Bao says he probably would have stuck with civil engineering. Observing his brother as a ‘workaholic, working seven days a week’ Bao didn't think that was a healthy lifestyle. This is what prompted him to pursue the Nuffield Scholarship initially. “I thought ‘Something has to give. Something has to change. Now we're thinking more about marketing and incorporating technology to change things for the better and increasing efficiency. That was one of my projects to increase efficiency.” Having just purchased a house, Bao is kept busy even when not at work and says he also enjoys crossfit in his downtime. He doesn’t consider himself a workaholic and with a laugh says “I take Sunday’s off.”