The story of Seedling Factory Nursery
Growing in more ways than one with new technology
Stepping out of their comfort zone with careful planning is yielding high rewards for Seedling Factory Nursery. “We went in with our eyes open and we believe we struck the right balance.”
The early years
Barry Winterbourne, his wife Veronica, and Ben Funnekotter are the three partners and shareholders of Seedling Factory, approximately half an hours’ drive from Perth, which sells vegetable seedlings direct to farmers and those in forestry.
Established in 1975 as an ornamental nursery in Huntingdale, Barry recalls the early years and how Seedling Factory has evolved. Barry and Veronica bought the 7 hectare Mandogalup site, including nursery in 1998. “They had about 14 million plants a year when we took it over.” They soon outgrew the space, which resulted in them purchasing a new and larger, 17ha site in 2010 to be developed in four stages over a period of seven years. In June 2020, they sold the Mandogalup site and now only operate from the Gossage Road site. Ben commented, “In 2004 we had 14 million plants and now we’re at 60 million and we’ve still got plenty of room to expand. The new production facility includes two new seeding lines mixers, germination facilities, workshops and storage.”
Barry, Veronica and Ben toured many nurseries throughout the United States and Europe to study global practices and greenhouse technologies to identify the best options for their expansion. In 2019, they attended a melon grafting conference in Europe, before travelling together to Spain, Holland and Italy to tour additional nurseries. Barry recalls Rijk Zwaan’s WA Sales Representative, “Dusanka Milunovic was instrumental in helping us. It was very well organised. They hosted us beautifully and really did a tremendous job.”
The nursery and advanced facilities are described by Ben as “definitely the largest seedling nursery in WA and probably the most advanced with the machines we have now. In the greenhouses, you can buy more advanced technology than we have, but we believe the level of technology we used is appropriate for our climate. Our greenhouses are twin skinned and we use natural ventilation for cooling.”
The nursery has been constructed with emphasis on streamlining workflows, from seeding through to germination, robotic stacking, layout and the pickup and the dispatch of final products. We went in with our eyes open and we believe we struck the right balance and after seven years we haven’t regretted our decision.”
With a commitment to providing customers with good products and exceptional service, Ben says
“I think my approach is different to other nursery managers because in a previous life I used to sell seeds myself. I know what it’s like to be a sales representative so I actively work with reps to show me their products and share trial results.”
I’m interested in the survival of my farmers. I believe if you take a long term approach, if you get the trials to growers and they can improve their bottom line, they they’ll be around next year to continue doing business with you”.
Rijk Zwaan's Blueleaf® varieties
Ben noted that seeds purchased from Rijk Zwaan are consistent performers. “The Rijk Zwaan systems are incredible. The nice thing about Rijk Zwaan is they run towards problems, not away. If and when we have a problem, Rijk Zwaan steps up to the plate and deals with it properly which is great.”
To remain at the forefront of customer minds, Barry says “We try to deliver good products, on time, every time. “Most growers place orders well ahead of time. Our business revolves around customers who phone and order in advance.”
Dusanka recounts the long history of working with Seedling Factory. “We began working with Seedling Factory approximately 25yrs ago, shortly after Rijk Zwaan started in Australia.”
Of Rijk Zwaan’s varieties, Ben says “they‘ve had great products for a long time. When you have good quality seeds, you stay in the picture. If we have a hiccup, they will send information on how to improve and get the best out of the variety. They’re very very proactive. I’ll give you an example of the support Rijk Zwaan gives us. We are contemplating setting up a grafting facility and Dusanka has provided us with so much helpful information which I really appreciate.”
Seedling Factory Nursery carries several of Rijk Zwaan’s Blueleaf® cucumber varieties. Although Blueleaf® is not a form of resistance, this naturally occurring trait helps growers maintain healthier cucumber crops. Rijk Zwaan has developed Blueleaf® varieties for all seasons and for various production regions. Some of the new varieties also contain the added benefit of CGMMV resistances.
“Blueleaf® is the kind of information we can pass down to growers. We have so many customers, all driven by different things. Some customers are driven by price, while others are driven by quality and might appreciate the additional value of variety resistances and traits like Blueleaf®.”
Reflecting on the past and looking towards the future
"Every grower needs a Plan B. That’s our major mission. We don’t recommend specific varieties, but encourage growers to undertake trials. Some aren’t interested in trials, but I tell them they should be looking for a Plan B and have that as a fall-back position in the interest of their business.”
When reflecting on the past, Barry recounts “I’ve been in the nursery industry since we purchased the first one in 1998. The Seedling Factory is part of a bigger group and we also do landscape and civil contracting, as well as having an irrigation division.”
In November 2002, Ben emigrated from South Africa to Australia, and has been involved with nurseries ever since. When describing Ben, Barry says “Ben is a long-time partner and stakeholder in Seedling Factory Nursery. He’s a good agronomist and helps growers with advice and positively influences the horticulture industry.”
Ben anticipates some emerging challenges for the industry over the coming years “I’d say the biggest risk to our company is climate and disease issues. Climate you can manage to a certain extent with nets or other innovations. Overall labour is becoming a huge problem for the growers too”.
As they look towards the future, Seedling Factory may expand into watermelon grafting. Ben stated “We are under no illusions. Growers are increasingly coming under pressure to produce more and grafting is definitely an area we are interested in.”
In terms of future opportunities in Australia, Ben says “We remain positive. People need to eat. I think there will be more structural changes and automation of planting and harvesting.”
Motivation and passion for the industry are clear drivers with Ben stating he enjoys “the mix of outdoor activity, meeting customers and my clients. I go and service all the regions and visit growers. I’m very active in that way and I enjoy growing things.”
Barry adds “I think we would definitely recommend this industry to others.”
Captions (Top to bottom):
Seedling Factory Nursery
Left to right: Veronica Winterbourn, Ben Funnekotter and Barry Winterbourn
Blueleaf® cucumber variety Craig RZ
Phuong Rix packing Blueleaf® cucumber variety Tantalos RZ