6 July, 2023
The team at Sundrop Farms love their work – and it shows in the top-quality tomatoes they grow for Coles.
Ever wondered why you can get great-tasting tomatoes year-round at Coles? While tomatoes are generally considered a summer fruit, thanks to innovations by Sundrop Farms - one of the producers supplying truss tomatoes to Coles - the company is able to grow vibrant vine-ripened Aussie tomatoes every month of the year.
Located at Port Augusta in South Australia, Sundrop Farms uses modern growing technology - a $200-million state-of-the-art facility consisting of four by five-hectare greenhouses built on flat, arid land that would traditionally only stock three or four cattle but now produces 13,500 tonnes of hand-picked tomatoes a year exclusively for Coles. These massive greenhouses are flanked by a glittering field of over 24,000 mirrors, an 127-metre high ‘power tower’ and large ponds of seawater pumped in from the Spencer Gulf.
Senior grower at Sundrop Farms, James Cossington, is happiest when he’s among the tomato vines, checking pollen in the flowers as golden sunlight streams through the greenhouse roof. “I’ve been working in tomato crops since 1992,” says James. “I just love tomatoes. I like that our tomatoes are grown in an environment protected from the weather and I love being in the tomato crop because it has a nice ecosystem. The greenhouses are really high tech and there are so many sunny days, which means that the plants grow quickly and healthily and the fruit is great quality.”
Having high-tech processes doesn't mean that the growers simply sit back and relax. “We follow those tomatoes all the way from the flower to the set fruit until it becomes harvestable,” James explains. “We flick the pollen on the flowers every day and measure the plant growth, size of the tomatoes, number of leaves, stem diameter and other things every week with tape measures and callipers to ensure they are healthy.”
In fact, if there was a luxury spa for tomatoes, Sundrop Farms would be it. These hydroponic tomatoes are carefully pampered with exactly the right temperature, moisture and nutrients to look and taste their very best as they ripen on the vine.
It’s pretty pleasant for the 320 people who work there, too, explains Chief Executive Officer Steve Marafiote: “In the greenhouse, it’s 22 degrees in winter and 26 degrees in summer, which is a beautiful work environment. I really love it.”
“The mirrors track the sunlight and direct it to the tower, which heats to 225 degrees and runs a boiler that produces steam to run our electricity turbines,” Steve explains. “It also produces heat that we store for the greenhouses and runs one of two desalination processes that turns seawater into fresh water that we use for irrigating the plants.”
As a result, Sundrop Farms is able to use water from the sea throughout its production and most of the heat and electricity is produced by the sun. Reducing reliance on finite resources is one of the farm’s key goals - last year it worked with Coles to remove 217 tonnes of cardboard a year from its packaging, while clever scheduling means just-harvested tomatoes are back-filled into empty Coles trucks on their way back to Adelaide, reducing transport emissions.
Best of all, shoppers no longer have to wait until summer to enjoy quality tomatoes. “Historically, it was always hard to grow tomatoes during winter but producing them this way we know customers can go to Coles any day of the year and eat the same quality, consistent product regardless of the season,” Steve says.
Growing great-tasting produce for customers to enjoy is an important factor in Steve's work. “I’m a proud third-generation farmer,” Steve says. “Both my grandfathers migrated to Australia in the 1950s – on my mum’s side they grew potatoes and carrots and my dad’s father was a tomato farmer. As Italians, almost every dish we ate growing up had tomatoes in it as a flavour extender but one of our favourite dishes was mum’s tomatoes and eggs in the morning.”
Sundrop’s harvest and packhouse supervisor Sam Wiltshire is also a dab hand at cooking tomatoes, often bringing in jars of homemade chutney to share with his co-workers. “I do 100 per cent of the cooking at home. My kids really like the cherry tomatoes because they’re so sweet,” he says. “I like making side dishes with tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, feta cheese and onion, or focaccia breads. The chutney is an old family recipe but I like it a bit spicier. It’s a 24-hour process and I make about 20 jars to give out to friends or bring to work.”
Sam began working as a general labourer at Sundrop when the site was nothing but dirt and has never looked back. He now manages 120 workers in the harvesting and packing division that ensures the product is shipped to Coles the day it is picked. “In summer we can harvest up 10,000 10-kilo trays a day,” he says. “We package four different lines [grape, cherry, truss and pre-packed truss tomatoes] and liaise with Coles about their orders Australia-wide, plus we organise plant health certificates if they are going through different borders and other logistics. It’s a big process.”
Like senior grower James, Sam loves what he does. “I’m first here every day to turn all the machines on and get ready for packing” Sam says. “I love seeing the workers come in every morning because they’re so happy and excited to get to work. They take great pride in what they do and that makes everything easier.