With over 28 years’ experience working with growers, wholesalers, researchers, and government authorities, Melbourne-based horticultural solutions leader Powerplants has a proven history of advancing Australia’s plant production and food sustainability.
Leading the company is CEO Carl van Loon, who assists with the design of new projects, undertakes customer and key supplier visits, and keeps up to date with new growing systems and techniques with his co-Director Simon Gomme. Mr van Loon’s father was a Nurseryman, and as such he learned about plant propagation from an early age, going on to further his knowledge by studying Engineering at RMIT and Horticulture at Melbourne University. Mr van Loon spoke with us recently about the steady growth of the company since its inception in 1994, the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the horticultural industry, and the exciting developments in energy conservation and vertical farming that promise to be a big part of Powerplants’ future.
Making Growers’ lives easier
“I started the company in 1994,” Mr van Loon says, “to provide growers with greenhouse climate control, systems, and service. The main goal was to improve productivity and quality of crops in their greenhouses.”
Over the years, the company’s mission has shifted to making horticulture much more sustainable, not only by using less resources, but in making the lives of growers easier through the use of automation.
“We’re also part of the Netherlands-based PB Tech Group, which is now also part of a much larger Atrium group of companies, which includes some very large glasshouse builders, designers, and turnkey providers.”
Powerplants manufactures its own line of products locally in Melbourne, including circulation fans, fogging systems, auto dosing and recycling systems for fertilizer and water, and benching systems.
“We are always developing long-term relationships with our customers, and expand with them as the business grows. Our customers include growers who sell directly to supermarkets and retailers, as well as corporates and government. We design and provide R&D facilities for government and larger seed companies, such as Bayer and others.”
It’s an exciting time for Powerplants, with the company expanding its operations from being exclusively Australian to working in New Zealand and Southeast Asia, with some interesting vertical farming projects on the horizon in Singapore and elsewhere.
“What we’ve done in Australia pretty well is learn how to help growers improve, not just straight to the top level, but sometimes just taking them two levels up with one piece of machinery, or improving their greenhouse a bit, and it’s taken them to a level that they’re comfortable in.”
Many of the company’s competitors from Europe tend to look at installing high-tech facilities as a matter of course, and not being interested in anything that isn’t large scale.
“We’ve got pretty good at helping smaller and medium-sized growers get from whatever level they’re at to improving their productivity, improving their quality, reducing their demand on resources, pesticide use, fungicides, water, fertilizer, all of these things.”
As the company expands into the Southeast Asian market, it is taking a similar approach, looking at smaller growers, with the same needs as the Australian growers Powerplants has helped for years. This tried and tested model promises to replicate that success.
The company is formed of four main divisions, which have been introduced steadily over the years. These divisions are Climate Systems, Controls and Water Systems, Automation and Labour Saving Systems, and Design and Project Management.
“Right at the start it was just Climate Systems, so we were putting in Retractable Shading & Fog Cooling systems, Circulation Fans and so on just to optimize the growing environment for plants. So that was the first division, and gradually over the years we added three more divisions.”
Next up was Controls and Water Systems, which involves designing and installing computers to control those Climate Systems already in place, and adding fertilizer dosing systems and recycling systems.
“The Automation and Labour Saving division is becoming one of the biggest parts of the business, as in Australia labour is very expensive, but it’s also getting very difficult to find. So growers are looking more desperately at getting automation to do jobs that they can’t get any people for whatsoever.”
The final division, Design & Project Management, has developed more rapidly over the last five years – as the company’s projects have started to get bigger and more complex – and is all about delivering professional services to customers.
The new normal
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant effect on industries across Australia and the world, and horticulture is no different, with the sourcing of labour in particular becoming more difficult. But there have also been some surprising positive side-effects.
“I think we’re pretty lucky to be involved in the nursery industry, which has really boomed in the last two years. People have become more interested in growing products at home, and doing veggie gardening and so on, but also home improvement in general, which includes gardening and landscaping.”
Various parts of the business have been affected more negatively, with a downturn in the Food Service industry or restaurants. Almost all the company’s customers, however, have done very well during the two years of the pandemic.
“The biggest problem that they’re having is not selling product, but actually finding the staff to grow the product. That’s becoming the biggest issue for the industry, and also our biggest issue right now too. All the time there are staff with Covid at the moment, and I think that’s the same in every business in Australia.”
There have also been issues with working across state borders during the pandemic, especially in Western Australia, Tasmania, and Queensland, but with people set up in all states, the company has managed to get all jobs done no matter the location.
“We’ve had to resort a bit more to doing remote installs, and that’s actually worked pretty well, so that’s a good thing for the future too. We can reduce our flights and carbon emissions by doing more projects remotely.”
There have also been significant supply chain issues, creating extra costs and delays in freight, with some suppliers struggling greatly with the computer chip shortage, which has made it difficult to get machines. Despite these issues, the future of the industry looks bright.
“There are some pretty exciting things coming up on the energy side of things,” Mr van Loon says. “We’re really interested in finding better solutions – utilising solar and batteries, finding alternative methods of producing CO2 and getting it into the greenhouse so that plants can use it.”
There are also some newer technologies in vertical farming that are particularly interesting to the company, especially when they are utilised in larger cities, like Singapore and Tokyo, with a very dense urban environment and middle classes looking for good quality, clean food.
“Vertical farming can provide that. I think vertical farming will become a really interesting part of the industry, and we’re pretty well placed to do that, with a lot of really good suppliers in Europe.”
The main issue the company faces going forward is the relative obscurity the horticultural industry still sits in, with the major effect of this coming in building a workforce that can support consumer demand, with many people unaware that horticulture is a viable career.
“There are some pretty high-tech and pretty well-paid positions available in the industry, and in our company as well,” Mr van Loon concludes. “What I want to try and do is promote this industry as a really vibrant, interesting industry that also ticks all of the boxes as far as where we’re going as a society, what we need to do as far as reducing resources, providing and producing high-quality food with less resources. We’re really looking for younger people who are keen to make a difference in the world in these areas.”
With a number of tailored solutions that combine extensive industry knowledge with the latest developments in global products and services, Powerplants is doing all it can to raise the profile of the horticultural industry. Find out more about Powerplants by visiting www.powerplants.com.au.