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Could this be the future of farming?

This week I had the opportunity to get a glimpse of what the future of farming might look like - or at the very least part of the future.

Sundrop Farms is about fifteen kilometres north of Port Augusta in South Australia. Its harsh, hot, dry and some would say very inhospitable. Despite this Sundrop Farm is a truly ground breaking project that brilliantly shows off what a combination of research, technology, investment and collaboration can result in. The results are remarkable.

Sundrop Farms could be mistaken for just an oversized greenhouse in a desert, but the fact that it ticks almost every single box from an overall business perspective means it's way more than that.

The enterprise uses an Integrated Energy System which is the first of its kind in the world - comprising 23,000 mirrors that are each two square metres in size. These mirrors (which are on average in direct sunlight for an amazing 300 days of the year) are constantly aimed at a 115 metre tall lighthouse structure that captures the sun's energy. This energy is used to strip salt from the nearby seawater, and at the same time produces power to heat and cool the greenhouse and most importantly delivers clean water for growing produce (in this case tomatoes) in a hydroponic growing system which uses nutrient-rich ground coconut husks as the host.

The farm comprises of four enormous greenhouses, each five hectares in size which produce 16,000 tonnes of truss tomatoes all year round, every year. Each greenhouse is monitored by the minute to ensure the climate and irrigation is controlled and the plants have precisely the right levels of nutrients, light, water and carbon dioxide to thrive and supply sustainable, affordable, and quality produce throughout the year.

Aerial view of the Port Augusta site (source: supplied)

This project successfully brings together the critical factors required for agriculture to flourish into the future. Sundrop started with research into relevant technology, innovation to translate that research into an agricultural business application. A strong business case was then developed including vital factors such as a clear return on investment and importantly a clear and reliable market for the goods (thanks in this case to Coles who have guaranteed demand for 10 years). It embraces sustainability like never before. From a planet perspective it generates its own power, produces up to 1 million litres of water from previously unusable sea water and uses minimal chemical inputs. From a people perspective it delivers significant returns to the local community in terms of jobs and growth in regional centre. And finally from a profit perspective it ticks that box making a healthy return on investment for the global investment giant KKR who have reportedly channelled more than $100 million into the venture.

This is an impressive venture demonstrating what can be achieved with the right combination of cutting edge technology, insightful innovation, prudent investment and collaborative partnerships right across the supply chain from local and state government, the farm sector and retailers. Delivering consumers a product they are demanding, when they want it, how they want it and at a price they can afford all with a neutral or positive impact on the environment.

This project and others like it represent a big part of the future of farming in Australia. Of course we will always have traditional broadacre farming and grazing but given our volatile climate (demonstrated by the destructive floods in Victoria and New South Wales in recent weeks) and the challenges we face accessing water and energy (never more apparent than in South Australia last week), the farming sector must embrace technology and innovation in a way that not only minimises the impact of such challenges but attracts investment that can deliver long term sustainability.

The Sundrop project may offer one model for overcoming those challenges…

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