Fancy lettuce and watercress
Since the early 1980’s the Nicholls family have been growing produce on the outskirts of Pukekohe, South Auckland, New Zealand. Well it used to be on the outskirts of Pukekohe, however, now Bruce Nicholls greenhouse operation boarders the new Urban development in Pukekohe West. Bruce has been a member of the PVGA (Pukekohe Vegetable Growers Association) and has served on the committee. He is currently on the Leafy Greens committee for Vegetables NZ.
Locally born and bred, Bruce attended a well-known South Auckland school Wesley College. After completing his secondary education, he then served five years in the NZ Army. In 1993 Bruce left the Army and joined the family business growing hydroponic lettuce. Back in the early 1980’s Bruce's father Jim Nicholls, a 50-year volunteer fireman, planted squash on the 6-acre property, this progressed into growing other crops such as artichokes, beans, raspberries, courgettes and passion fruit. The raspberries were going well until Cyclone Bola decimated the crop in March of 1988. In 1989 the family imported Fancy Lettuce seed, from Australia, to grow in tunnel houses. Initially these were grown in the soil but it soon became apparent that washing soil of every root system, at harvesting, was not sustainable!
The following season the Nicholls were the first growers using lettuce channels raised up on benches in a fully recirculated hydroponic system in New Zealand. As the years passed the business expanded, the lettuce growing operation grew to approximately 1 ha by 2016. At that time capacity peaked at approximately 250,000 heads. Plantings are staggered for continuity of supply. Depending on the weather conditions, between 5-8 crops grow annually. Plug plants are germinated and supplied by Seedling Systems a local nursery. Lettuce takes around 4 weeks from planting to harvest, in the summer, and up to as long as 14-16 weeks in the winter. Bruce believes light is the key element. This season the mild winter has contributed to an increase in production. For the past 9 seasons, the operation has been growing Watercress in an outdoor section of the property. “It is a technical crop to grow” said Bruce, especially to meet the specification required for their market.
Different varieties of fancy lettuce are planted to meet the demand of the consumer.
The Fancy Lettuce, Bruce grows, is highly sought after and his company sells directly to Progressive. They distribute the produce to different parts of the North Island. The products’ high demand keeps Bruce, and his staff, extremely busy. The market performance of the Fancy Lettuce has been very stable, Bruce said there was a slight dip in demand when Mesclun salad mixes were in vogue but demand for Fancy Lettuce is now as strong as ever.
The business has four staff, with three fulltime staff and one part time.
Pest and Disease
Situated amongst some of NZ’s largest potato and onion growers has made controlling Thrips, Aphids and Caterpillars difficult, but with over 30 years growing experience Bruce is well equipped for this constant challenge.
Pythium has been an issue, in the past, but with new biological products available the growing operation has become easier to manage. Bruce believes testing for E.coli will soon come into effect for both the leaf and root area of the plant. Fancy Lettuce needs to be purchased by the consumer with the root system attached to the leaf area to maintain its fresh quality. This has highlighted the importance of having a clean hydroponic system compared to growing in the soil.
Due to urban sprawl, Bruce’s family business, going back almost 40 years, has come under threat and the family have been left with no choice but to sell their property. Bruce has leased the property back from the new owner two more years. During this time Bruce will be looking to relocate his business to another property or seek new opportunities.
The future for Bruce, in the industry, will change. However, all the valuable growing knowledge and management skills he has under his belt will be invaluable for any operation he becomes involved with.
Like myself, Bruce is a cricket player and fan. Over the years I have been fortunate to play many games of cricket against Bruce, he has always been a tough opponent but always has a smile on his face. Many of my bowling figures were ruined by Bruce’s famous cover drives that generally go for six! He still plays today and enjoys the social side and time this gives him from his busy life as a grower.
Freshly picked ready to be sent direct to the customer