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How fresh chemistry adds value to fresh produce

Covino Farms is one of the country’s leading fresh salad and vegetable producers, consistently meeting and even exceeding customer expectations. The family business is based at Longford in Victoria, where they grow a wide range of crops – including leafy green vegetables, carrots and a range of brassicas – on 3,500 acres. Supplying a large customer base with such perishable produce takes a combination of exceptional quality assurance and constant innovation. The recent addition of Versys® Insecticide from BASF to their spray rotation helps on both counts.

One of the more predictable challenges the Covinos face is dealing with heavy aphid pressure – especially from cabbage aphids – in autumn. The feeding damage aphids cause is often the lesser of two evils compared to their role as a vector of disease, as Sally Douglas, a trainee agronomist from E. E. Muir at Lindenow, points out. “They’re such a bad pest for transfer of disease. You need to shut them right down to prevent the crops getting infected.”

Late in 2019 Sally introduced Peter Covino to Versys as a new option for aphid control. Peter soon noticed a difference in the speed of control compared to other products they use.

“With Versys we see a quick response and that certainly helps. We soon know we have the aphids under control. Other products may get the same kill rate, but it takes longer. So at first you don’t know if the application has been successful.” And of course it’s during that delay in achieving the control that the aphids can infect crops with damaging viruses. “We’ve been using Versys for about six months,” Peter Covino said in May 2020, “and it’s going well.”

Covino Farms has been successfully using a range of BASF products for years and applied Aero to control early blight on their tomatoes earlier this year. Peter agrees that the company’s reputation plays a part in their willingness to test out its new products.       

“Obviously knowing that it’s coming from a major manufacturer gives us confidence to try something new,” he says, “but at the end of the day, this product speaks for itself.”

Both Sally and Peter are particularly impressed by how much cleaner the Versys-treated brassicas are at harvest. As all growers know, crops like cauliflowers are especially vulnerable to contamination because the carcases of controlled pests can get trapped within their heads.

Sally explains that the effect of Versys on the aphids’ nervous system means far fewer of them stay on the crop. “They do that little dance and fall off the leaf, which prevents foreign body contamination at harvest.”

“The crops are definitely cleaner,” says Peter. “The cabbages are trimmed, so they’re not such an issue, but it’s particularly noticeable in the caulis and broccoli.”

Peter and his team are able to take full advantage of that reduced contamination risk, because they are predominantly using Versys towards the end of each crop cycle. As a less toxic product used at a lower rate than some of the alternatives, Versys can be used up to four times in each crop and has very short withholding periods. In the future Covino Farms may consider applying Versys at least once on the younger crops when limiting the risk of disease transmission can prevent greater potential damage.   

Is the one-day withholding period in brassicas for new chemistry a big advantage for Peter in their current spray program?

“Absolutely,” he says. “We use different chemical groups as much as possible to avoid relying on the same mode of action, so introducing new chemistry is always good. At the moment we’re targeting Versys more towards the end of the crop. Harvesting cleaner produce lessens the risks of rejection and customer disappointment. It’s really important for us to meet customer expectations.”

Meeting customer expectations is equally important to BASF, and Versys seems to be off to flying start. “It sort of ticks all the boxes with the growers,” says Sally Douglas. Peter Covino is a little more reserved, but still very positive: “It’s still early days, but it’s looking good.”