"AU: "Hydroponics are the answer to full flavoured tomatoes"

When the surf's up, Point Lonsdale hydroponic tomato grower James Moran can get a little edgy.

For James, the sheer exhilaration and freedom of riding across a wave under a crystal clear sky sparks emotions close to his heart.

However, it's been a long time since James managed to find the time for this passion, as he is also proprietor of Lonsdale Tomato Farm. Here, where grows tomatoes hydroponically, he spends the bulk of his time.

"There's just not much chance of that these days," James says. "I'd like to get out there a bit, but it's not possible."

James looks after over 8,000 tomato vines at a time, over 4,000 square metres greenhouse on his four hectares.

At peak times each of these plants is handled nice times a week.

"That includes leaf pruning, twisting, picking and hand-pollinating," James says. "It's like so many things in farming, like the dairy farmer who needs to be up every morning because the cows don't know when it's a day off. It's the same with plants. There is something to do every day of the week, every day of the year. You can't just walk away from them."

Not even James' wife, Angela, is spared from the demands of the business. A district nurse who works part-time in Point Lonsdale, Angela spends several days a week on tomato duty, doing various jobs on the property and helping with farmgate sales from Thursday to Sunday. It's a family juggling act at times, admits James, especially with their children, Lilli, 15, Zara, 12, and Hugh, 8, all at school, but they seem to have hit on a workable system.

For James and Angela, running a hydroponic tomato business is comparatively new, though their grounding was impeccable.

For 17 years he worked as a landscape gardener and nurseryman with his brother, Digby, until joining the hydroponic tomato business his uncle and aunt, Andrew and Helen Pearson, established in 1998. Back then, it was supposed to be a part-time farm venture on a "retirement" property.

Andrew and Helen initially experimented with olive trees (which can still be seen in a paddock near one of the greenhouses).

Then Andrew investigated hydroponics, fast becoming popular, and progressively the tomatoes became the mainstay.

Then called Lonsdale Hydroponics, the company operated from the two large greenhouses that still form the major part of the current complex and quickly took off, picking up local and Melbourne markets.

After working for Andrew and Helen for about eight years, James had gained a good grasp of what was involved and the founders decided it was time for nephew James to take over. In June 2011, he assumed control, with his relatives easing into full-time retirement.

James reckons that hydroponic cultivation is the answer to a lot of the problems often encountered with modern tomatoes.

"Our tomatoes are ripened on the bush so they get to their full flavour while still on the plant," he says. "We're not picking them green and packaging them off."

Then there's the environmental factor. "You get such a high yield out of a small area," he says, "It's an environmentally friendly way of growing because, using drip irrigation, you aren't wasting a lot of water and you can produce 12 months of the year.

"And they have low food miles because we deliver a lot of them locally ourselves. That's a pretty important thing these days."

This low-water aspect (it has been estimated hydroponic tomatoes use about a fifth of the amount of water as soil-grown fruit) allowed the company to work through the drought years largely unscathed.

EACH year Lonsdale Tomato Farm sends out about 150 tonnes of tomatoes, with about 60 per cent going to independent supermarkets and a distributor in Melbourne and the remainder sold to supermarkets, restaurants and cafes on the Bellarine Peninsula and via the property's farmgate.

As well as truss tomatoes, the company sells basil, coriander, several types of lettuce, cherry tomatoes, round tomatoes and Roma tomatoes, with seconds tomatoes being made into chutney and sauces for farmgate sale along with some produce brought in from other businesses. James sees this popular farmgate side of the business as the perfect way to provide a valuable service to locals while keeping a finger on the pulse of what consumers want.

Source: weeklytimesnow.com.au

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