Meet Australia’s lettuce king

Matt Hood Rugby Farms- lettuce (2)Think you know your lettuce? You’ve got nothing on Gatton farmer Matt Hood.
Each year his family business, Rugby Farm, is responsible for growing about 20-million Iceberg lettuce.
You’ve probably enjoyed his lettuce on your hamburger; in your sandwich; or in your salad.
Matt, his brother Dan and father David are major suppliers of lettuce, sweet corn and green beans to Coles across Australia.
In June 2013 Matt was named Australian Grower of the Year by his industry body, AUSVEG.
Matt says a lot of his family’s business success is down to the relationship they have with Coles. The chain stores often come in for criticism from farmers and from consumers, but Matt says it’s unfounded.
“Our relationship with Coles is a foundation of our business,” he says.
“Our business has grown substantially on the back of our relationship with Coles. It’s challenging but their customers have high expectations of them and those expectations get passed down the line. We have to mature and there are higher expectations of how we grow and of the nutritional value. We want to feed Australians good, wholesome, nutritional foods.”
Matt was raised on the family farm at Gatton, which remains the company’s home base. The company now also has farms at various, strategic locations around the state to enable 12-month supply.
Matt’s grandfather first started farming citrus and lucerne at Gatton. Matt’s father grew the business, branching into potatoes and onions and some cotton. Matt and his brother spent their childhood helping on the farm, driving tractors and utes and running free.
“Things are a lot different today, sadly,” he says.
“I can’t have my kids running around like I used to. It was certainly a great life growing up and just being able to run.”
After school Matt trained and worked as a civil engineer but chose to return to the farm and help grow the business.
In his father’s day it used to be that a farmer’s responsibility ended once the produce left the front gate. Not so anymore.
“The supply chain is very tight and if you’re not adding value no one can afford to have you,” says Matt.
“Consumers today want to have a closer relationship with the grower and want to know where their product comes from. Retailers understand that and want to have closer relationships with the grower as well. It enables them to offer the consumer more things. We have our own transport now and control all of that. The old farm gate mentality has gone from our business.”
Matt says while he normally shuns the limelight he’s been flattered to have been recognised by peers with the Grower of the Year Award and hopes to raise the profile of vegetable growers in Australia.
“I don’t think people truly appreciate what’s required to run a successful horticulture business,” he says.
“It’s very intense, very regulated and controlled, customers have high expectations and you’re dealing with Mother Nature on a daily basis.
“Anyone who works in our industry is very passionate. If you’re not passionate about what you do you’re going to struggle.”
Matt says while his company’s growth has involved a steep learning curve for all involved, getting bigger isn’t the only way to survive in the industry.
“There is no right or wrong, it was just a decision we made,” he says.
“There’s opportunities for all in farming, there are still niche markets out there for smaller growers.”

Paddock to Plate of Lettuce

Seedlings: We use nurseries to grow out our transplants. We receive them about five to six weeks after seeding. The transplant is about 6cm high and comes in a little soil cell. We have a semi-automated machine with a little turntable, which drops them into the soil for us.
Irrigation: We use two types of irrigation – trickle and overhead. During summer overhead irrigation helps with the cooling aspect, particularly in the middle of the day.
Nutrition: In order to maintain a nutrient-balanced plant, we feed the plants through the irrigator whatever they are lacking. Nitrogen is a big demand on most veggies and potassium and calcium are key ones too. Minor trace elements like zinc and boron are lacking in our soils around here and are important to growth.
Challenge: Lettuce is very challenging to grow because they are susceptible to fungal and bacterial disease. Insects like them too. A lot of work is being done on hybrid varieties to bring the best aspects in there.
Variety: This is key. It’s pretty hard for a backyard veggie patch to get a lettuce that’s going to produce a good quality. We use eight different varieties over the 12 months and they’re all suited to very specific windows of climate. We have to forecast the weather six months in advance. We’re always trialing new varieties too.
Competition: the biggest challenge for the Iceberg is there’s a lot more choice for consumers today. I don’t think they offer the same taste and flavour that Iceberg does but the restaurant and food sector has gone for mixed baby leaf, which they see as a bit more attractive and simple. Though I don’t know how much simpler you can get than an iceberg.
Harvest: Every lettuce is cut by hand and placed in a carton in the field. The bud is washed in the field to remove the sap to stop the browning of the butt. We want to keep it nice and clean so it goes pink and not brown.
Cooling: the cartons are taken to our main facility and cooled. The quicker we remove the field heat the better the shelf life. We use a very expensive machine called a vacuum cooler which drops them down to between two and four degrees.

The Big Issue: The biggest challenge for us is consistency. Were not a Coke or an Uncle Tobys. We produce highly perishable products with high expectations from the consumer who likes perfection every day. Mother Nature doesn’t make that easy for us. We try to manage that.

Secret to Success: Everyone measures success differently. For us it’s about balance. Having balance in business, in our personal lives, in everything we do. That would be one of our biggest challenges.

Price: We like to see the retail price around $2.50 and $3. When people see a 99c lettuce they will know the farmer is getting nothing back. The lettuce is free. A lot of people don’t understand why we still harvest it. You have to understand that by harvest time I have spent all that money to get the crop to that point and if I can get part of it back it’s better than getting nothing.