Food and tech innovation converge is South Australia’s Far North

By Nick Carne

There’s a food revolution happening just out of Port Augusta, but it’s more about smart thinking than flavour combinations and plating up.

Sundrop Farms is growing fresh vegetables in arid conditions by using sunlight (which is free and abundant) to create fresh water from seawater (which is free and abundant) and provide the power to run greenhouses. The plants are produced hydroponically, with coconut husks rather than soil as the growing medium, and because it all happens under cover there’s a low risk of pests – thus little need for pesticides – and produce is available all year round.

The project started small, with a trial greenhouse covering 0.2 hectares producing tomatoes, cucumbers and capsicums. However, people liked what they saw and a 100-fold expansion is now under way, with a new 20-hectare greenhouse complex scheduled to be operating nearby at the end of next year. That will produce 15,000 tonnes of truss tomatoes each year for Coles under a recently signed 10-year deal.

“The construction team are busy working on the build of our four greenhouses and will soon be commencing the installation of the impressive solar field which we hope to have completed by mid-next year,” said Managing Director John Phinney. “There will be around 23,000 individual mirrors, and they will concentrate solar energy to the top of a 115-metre tall solar tower.”

A 100-fold expansion is currently under way at Sundrop Farms near Port Augusta.

A 100-fold expansion is currently under way at Sundrop Farms near Port Augusta.

While the idea of combining solar power and desalination technology seems obvious, there’s currently nothing quite like it in Australia, or indeed anywhere in the world. Sundrop (as in “sun” and water “drop”) is based in London and has offices in the Middle East, but chose Port Augusta for its first trial facility because it ticks all the right boxes.

The seawater, of course, comes from the nearby Spencer Gulf, and the workforce, which will rise to over 150 over the next 18 months, primarily from surrounding areas. The other prerequisites for cost-efficient production are flat land and proximity to existing infrastructure and potential markets.

During the pilot stage, Phinney and his team explored the best ways to make the farm commercially viable by determining how to integrate various technological platforms and, ultimately, turn the pilot into something that would be economically sustainable on a large scale. The original trial site will be kept and used for R&D and training. The focus now is on getting a first wave of workers up to speed.

“We understand that a vast majority of the people that will be coming in, it may be their first time working in horticulture and almost certainly working in a greenhouse, so it will be a learning process for them,” he said. “But we are really excited about the opportunity. We have to basically start a new industry here and we are excited for members of this community to come on the journey with us.”

You can watch the transformation of the Sundrop Farms site here.

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