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Laserweeding kills weeds at the meristem before they compete for precious resources

Hort Connections 2024: Seeing some of the latest automations and technology firsthand on farm tours

As well as hearing from some of the best speakers and leaders across the horticulture and supply chain industry and attending a busy tradeshow, Hort Connections 2024 delegates also got to experience some new innovations up close.

The opening day of the conference featured several farm and off-site tours. Among the tours on the opening day of the conference were a retail tour, Epping Market and Yarra Valley Farm, a structures tour and a Mornington Peninsula Farm Tour.

Another of those went west of Melbourne to explore some salad producers and the new technologies and methods they are using to improve their farming.

Boomaroo Nurseries
The first stop on the tour was Boomaroo Nurseries to learn about their automation in greenhouse seed production of salad products.

Based in Lara, around 45 minutes southwest of Melbourne is one of Australia's largest vegetable seedlings and Greenlife suppliers, that has been operating for over 30 years. The company has another facility in Southbrook, Queensland.

Delegates saw first-hand some of the automated handling systems that enhance quality, consistency, traceability, efficiency and reliability.

Jo van Niekerk, National Sales Manager was conducting around the property. She explained that the company has the capability to produce up to two million Greenlife potted plants across over 100 product lines grown in multiple pot formats.

While Boomaroo mostly develops commercial seed varieties, it also has the capability to grow from the customer's own seed genetics.

There were many examples of innovative technology to partially automate the process; from tracks to transport the plants across the facility, while there's also an automated seed sowing machine that allows workers to sow multiple products at once during the production process.

Ms van Niekerk explained the Lara site has many benefits, from the protected growing conditions provided by the nearby You Yang Ranges, to advantages in biosecurity through geographic separation from major growing regions, as well as access to major distribution arterials.

Tripod Farmers
The next stop on the tour was Tripod Farmers in Bacchus Marsh, which is a family business specialising in fresh, premium-quality salads and vegetables for supermarkets and wholesale grocers.

Joint Managing Director, Angela Candeloro welcomed delegates, explaining that the farm is now into its third and fourth generation, with over 120 years of experience in the industry. Today, it farms on 1,000 acres across multiple sites in Western Melbourne and Gippsland.

But one of the draws to the business was that delegates got to experience the innovative LaserWeeder from Carbon Robotics – one of two businesses in Australia to use the technology.

Laserweeding kills weeds at the meristem before they compete for precious resources. Lasers leave the soil microbiology undisturbed and the lack of herbicides and soil disruption paves the way for a regenerative approach, which leads to healthy crops and higher yields.

Labour is often farmers' biggest cost, but Mark Zahnlecker from Carbon Robotics explained that automated robots enable farmers to reduce the highly variable cost of manual labour as well as reduce the use of crop inputs such as herbicides and fertilisers.

Basically, the fields are mapped and images of the plant that needs to be untouched are captured, allowing the lasers to target foreign growth. The speed of the vehicle powering the LaserWeeder can be adjusted based on its effectiveness, while other alterations can be made by a smart device dashboard.

Tripod Farmers were thrilled at their latest machinery, reporting that it was eliminating roughly two million weeds per day.

Boratto Farms
The tour then travelled across town in Bacchus Marsh to another leading salad and vegetable producer. The Boratto Family farming business started in 1966, and has now expanded land holdings to approximately 400 acres in the district.

One of the key messages Owner/Director Dino Boratto told fellow farm owners was the importance of understanding every little detail of the property. Even though farms in the area will share some general similarities, each area of a property will yield different results and need different care based on the crop that is being produced, the time of the year and the weather conditions.

Dino also has his sons Joe and Dominic working who he says are as passionate about farming as their father.

The Boratto family is always striving to introduce new technologies to their farming practices, whether that be in the form of technology or in the type of fertilizer and compost being introduced to the crops.

Delegates also got to learn about one of the software systems that helps visitors to farms check in and receive relevant health and safety information about the property, meet compliance regulations and manage daily farm operations.

Visitors during the Hort Connections tour had to scan QR codes and enter their personal information, before acknowledging that they had read the risks and rules associated with entering the property, before scanning out when they left the farm.

Onside began in 2015 and has expanded its footprint to Australia, New Zealand, and the UK, with offices in Christchurch and Melbourne.