Growing hope for strawberry farm

The Latrobe Valley is in the running for a $37 million hydroponic strawberry glasshouse which would produce 2100 tonnes of fresh fruit per annum and provide 120 ongoing local jobs.

Mecrus Group, which trades as Gippsland Strawberries and Berry Sensation, is being lured to the Valley with a $3 million federal government grant designed to kick start local jobs and industries.

Managing director Barry Richards said they had not chosen a site yet and were tossing up between building the 12-hectare glasshouse in either South Australia or the Latrobe Valley.

Mr Richards said site selection was dependent on how well it could service a large-scale strawberry glasshouse and would take into account factors such as water availability, climate and whether the land was flat enough.

"It could go in lots of places in the Latrobe Valley. We have land at Hazelwood under a lease arrangement that could be potentially used for this facility," Mr Richards said.

"At Hazelwood we would need to do some earthworks. We are looking at another site that is flatter but not as well serviced. It's helpful governments are supportive as it's a large project."

Mr Richards said he hoped to announce a site by the end of May. Construction would start in July, taking about two years to build.

He said they were also negotiating with investors to raise capital to finalise the project.

The glasshouse would be built in three stages and house one million plants growing premium product year-round for the domestic market.

It would be a state-of-the-art design for maximum water and electricity efficiency using expertise from the Netherlands. The site would also include a packing and handling facility.

Mr Richards said that it would produce two per cent of the Australian fresh strawberry market.

"There is loads of room in the market for this supply. In a glasshouse, you get a much better product in a controlled environment. They don't get blemishes and you get better yields per plant," he said.

"Strawberries are a delicate fruit – one rain-event can wipe a crop out. In Australia, the strawberry industry is largely field-based. In Europe and Japan, it's all grown in glasshouses."

He said the company had also developed 12 varieties in conjunction with Japanese breeders although not all varieties would be ready for commercialisation.

The project expands on Mecrus Group's existing strawberry farm in Officer and a research and development facility near Warragul.

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