Producing 20,000 kg of fresh, gourmet vegetables each week, all of which must be perfectly sized to fit a salad fork, means harvest is a delicate art for Western Australia’s The Loose Leaf Lettuce Company.
Regarded as one of the state’s largest salad producers, the business operates across two sandy soil properties spanning 60 ha (150 ac) in Gingin, where it grows cos lettuce, baby spinach, baby leaf red and green lettuce, rocket, mizuna, tatsoi and French kale.
The Dobra family, including Maureen, Barry and son Kevan, has owned the operation for more than 33 years, but has focused solely on lettuce mixes for the last 20, to align with growing consumer demand for fresh-cut baby leaf spinach and salad mixes. Kevan said:
“We process all our own salad mixes here at our custom-built packing facility.”
“We have exported and sold out of state in the past but are now focusing purely on the reliable local market here in Western Australia. To meet our demands, we need efficiency and reliability across all our operations.”
The farm’s fast-paced production sequences and need for dependable equipment are what drew the Dobra family to rely on a John Deere lineup of machinery.
For the harvest, which requires guaranteed precision, given the dainty nature of the crop, Kevan turned to John Deere 5 Series Tractors, including a 5083E, with another 5083E and a 5093E set to arrive on the farm soon.
The mixed salad industry has a relentless nature, with rapid crop cycles that roll across the year.
Mizuna (commonly known as Japanese mustard greens) is harvested 14 days after planting and spinach about 24 days, while cos lettuce is one of the longer varieties being cut every 40 days.
The ideal cut for greens is one that fits leaves neatly on a fork – a tricky fraction to achieve using heavy machinery. Harvest occurs around 6.30 am when fresh dew allows for prime cutting conditions.
The John Deere 5 Series 5083E, which is equipped with a four-cylinder John Deere PowerTech 61.1 kW engine has the power to get through long days, while its refined hydraulic system ensures the precision needed for exacting harvest requirements. Kevan said:
“At harvest the tractors are working roughly between 8 and 12 hours a day for five days a week, and that’s why reliability is the key for us when it comes to machinery.”
The Loose Leaf Lettuce Company’s custom-built harvesting implement uses the 5083E’s centre hydraulic systems, which provides up to 60.2 L of flow per minute, to control the height of the cut on a plant’s stem. Kevan said:
“We have a large seasonal workforce, so machinery that has ease of use is also important to us.”
“With the 5 Series, we can train backpackers to work as operators during harvest quite quickly, which makes them a great machine for our business.”
Once harvested, the produce is processed at the packhouse where the bulk of The Loose Lettuce Leaf Company’s 70 staff are operational.
The leafy greens are sorted, washed, spin-dried and packed into bags ranging from 30 g to 500 g. From there, fresh produce is distributed across Western Australia.
Over the years, the business has not only invested in a reliable fleet of equipment but has also prioritized efficient energy systems.
As Gingin has a sporadic 600 mm annual rainfall, the main property is fully irrigated with fixed-overhead, pivot and fixed-ground watering systems that are powered with 200 kw solar panels housed on the packhouse shed. Despite this risk mitigation, the climate is still the toughest challenge the business faces. Kevan said:
“Just recently we received 80 mm within two weeks, it was too much rain for this time of year.”
“Going into the summer season, the rain slowed and shortened our production cycle. We are constantly dealing with the elements, so we have learned to make the most of good conditions when we have them.”
Regardless of this, Kevan said there is no better feeling than walking into a grocery store and seeing The Loose Leaf Lettuce Company packs presented on a shelf or eating at a restaurant and knowing the salad originated from his farm. He said:
“It makes all the hard work feel very worthwhile.”