Sun and Seawater grow tomatoes in Australian desert

Sundrop farms grows tomatoes in their 20-hectare hydroponic greenhouse. / Sundrop Farms

 

A farm in the desert of Australia has managed to produce thousands of tonnes of produce using only seawater and the sun. Sundrop farms is a hydroponic greenhouse, meaning it uses no soil in which to grow the food it produces. The company’s website states that “today’s agricultural methods are not sustainable for producers, consumers or for the planet.” This subject has been explored by scientists and farmers alike for a long time, all asking the question: How can we feed the billions of people on the planet in a sustainable way? Sundrop thinks they have the solution.

Port Augusta, Australia, is not typically what would be considered prime farmland. In fact, it’s a desert and the nearest source of water is the ocean. Sundrop pipes in their water from there and uses a solar-powered desalination plant to produce freshwater. The water is put into a complex and carefully optimized irrigation system to keep everything exactly where it needs to be.

Sundrop says their farm needs very little, though with the $200 million dollar set up cost, as reported by the New Scientist, the cost to get going is more than traditional agriculture. However, Sundrop says their farms will eventually pay for themselves. They claim to have cut out the need for traditional fertilizers and pesticides, the main source of pollution from traditional modern agriculture. The hydroponic farm instead uses coconut husks to provide the plants with nutrition, a system that Sundrop claims allows them to control exactly what goes into the plant and therefore exactly what they get out of it.

There is only one flaw in the system so far, Sundrop Farm CEO Philipp Saumweber told The New Scientist. Due to reduced sunlight in winter, the farm does still need to connect to the grid for backup purposes. Saumweber is confident that improvements to the system over time will eliminate the need to rely on fossil fuels at all.

Whether the farm or one of it’s siblings will be able to produce this amount of any other crops than tomatoes remains to be seen.  Robert Park at the University of Sydney, Australia told the New Scientist,  “it’s a bit like crushing a garlic clove with a sledgehammer,” to use such expensive technology to grown tomatoes, something Australia does not have a shortage of and can grow reasonably well in more suitable areas of the country.

Sundrop says that they are in this for a profit, and that, perhaps, is the reason for such a popular crop. The company boasts on their website of being able to pay their staff above the living wage in Australia as a direct result of their profits. Avoiding the use of fossil fuels and instead directing their efforts toward sustainable technology is how Sundrop plans to remain profitable in the future.

Right now, Sundrop says their farm produces 15 per cent of Australia’s tomatoes at their desert farm, and their business is only growing. Right now they have a farm in Odemira, Portugal, and this year broke ground on another in Tennessee. They are also looking to expand into other areas around the world that are currently considered barren in the coming years.

 

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