Grow­ing toma­toes in the South Aus­tralian desert.

GQ (Australia) - - CONTENTS -


This small slice of Aus­tralia, sand­wiched be­tween the Princess High­way and the Spencer Gulf, was re­mark­able only in that it was on the way to some­where else. Keep driv­ing and you’ll hit Port Au­gusta – what lo­cals call the cross­roads of Aus­tralia – and be­yond that, the Flin­ders Ranges to the north or the Nullar­bor out west. But one day, some­one looked at this empty stretch of red dirt and blue sky and imag­ined it as the per­fect place to start grow­ing toma­toes. Cra­zier still, they were right. Sun­drop Farms opened a pi­lot fa­cil­ity here in 2010. Once it proved the vi­a­bil­ity of its hy­dro­ponic farm­ing con­cept, with har­vests of toma­toes and egg­plants, con­struc­tion be­gan on the nearby, full-scale fa­cil­ity in 2014. Af­ter 18 months and a spend of $200m, it of­fi­cially opened last Oc­to­ber. The fa­cil­ity now pro­duces 15,000 tonnes of truss toma­toes a year – some $105m worth – and em­ploys around 220 peo­ple. But by far the most strik­ing thing about Sun­drop Farms is that it looks noth­ing like a con­ven­tional farm. Con­sist­ing of a 20-hectare green­house, a vast field of 23,000 mir­rors, a 127m-tall so­lar tower and a de­sali­na­tion plant, it ap­pears more like a space sta­tion parked in the Aus­tralian out­back than any­thing re­sem­bling an agri­cul­tural op­er­a­tion. Steve Marafiote is the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Sun­drop Farms Aus­tralia, and comes from three gen­er­a­tions of agri­cul­ture work­ers. He was ap­proached to lead the com­pany in early 2015, while work­ing as the CEO of the South Aus­tralian Potato Com­pany. “When I un­der­stood what Sun­drop was about, I knew I wanted to be part of the busi­ness,” he re­calls. While re­moved from the ob­vi­ous hall­marks of a tra­di­tional farm­ing set-up – you’ll find no soil or fer­tilis­ers here – nor is it like a con­ven­tional green­house, ei­ther. Typ­i­cally, ground­wa­ter’s re­lied upon for ir­ri­ga­tion, gas or diesel for heat­ing and elec­tric­ity for cool­ing. Sun­drop Farms, mean­while, does none of th­ese things. In­stead, it es­sen­tially re­quires two key in­gre­di­ents – sun and sea­wa­ter. The first of those is fairly straight­for­ward – Port Au­gusta hap­pens to be one of the sun­ni­est places on earth. But this also ties into the sec­ond el­e­ment, as the mir­rors di­rect the sun’s rays to­wards the re­ceiver tower, pro­duc­ing up to 39 megawatts of en­ergy a day. This is used to pump 2.8 mil­lion litres of sea­wa­ter from the Spencer Gulf along a 5.5km pipeline to the fa­cil­ity. There, a so­lar-pow­ered de­sali­na­tion plant turns it into enough fresh wa­ter to ir­ri­gate 180,000 tomato plants and heat the green­houses. Ad­di­tional salt­wa­ter is also used to cool them, and also hap­pens to act as a nat­u­ral pes­ti­cide. “Sun­drop tech­nol­ogy doesn’t ex­ploit na­ture,” de­clares the com­pany’s web­site, “it works in har­mony with it.” “This large-scale sus­tain­able op­er­a­tion is world lead­ing,” of­fers Marafiote. “If you look at the agri­cul­tural land where the farm is now, it was 120 hectare site that would tra­di­tion­ally sus­tain six to 10 cows a year. That’s it. In­stead, that desert land has been con­verted to pro­duce 15,000 tonnes of toma­toes a year – it’s a stark dif­fer­ence.” Sus­tain­able prac­tices are of­ten seen as feel-good, if in­ef­fi­cient – Sun­drop is any­thing but. The com­pany hires lo­cally and sees it­self as a pi­o­neer for sus­tain­able farm­ing prac­tices – cre­at­ing re­gional jobs and help­ing to pro­duce food without harm­ing the en­vi­ron­ment. That’s the feel-good stuff. But the most cru­cial el­e­ment in the Sun­drop equa­tion is that it’s a vi­able busi­ness.


Pri­vate eq­uity firm KKR in­vested $100m in the project and Coles has come on board as an of­fi­cial part­ner. In fact, Sun­drop Farms has won a con­tract to sup­ply the su­per­mar­ket chain with truss toma­toes for the next 10 years – the rea­son the fa­cil­ity is fo­cus­ing on tomato pro­duc­tion. And it cur­rently has a 15 per cent share of the Aus­tralian mar­ket. Not only does the cli­mate-con­trolled hy­dro­ponic sys­tem mean it has a sin­gle sea­son, all year round, it also al­lows the plant to closely mon­i­tor and re­spond to is­sues in a way that tra­di­tional farm­ing can­not. “This is the least con­tin­gent on the en­vi­ron­ment, com­pared to what you would see in tra­di­tional agri­cul­ture,” says Marafiote. “We have ac­cess to a lot of data points that we can grab in­for­ma­tion from and al­ter our set­tings, in a way not tra­di­tion­ally avail­able.” This data also al­lows the mon­i­tor­ing and con­trol of things like wa­ter, fuel or elec­tric­ity use – and to pre­dict them well into the fu­ture. “We know what those op­er­at­ing costs will look like for the next 20 years, and I don’t think there are too many sec­tors who have the lux­ury of that po­si­tion.” Marafiote says the Sun­drop Farms method is not only more ef­fi­cient, but the pro­duce is bet­ter. “We have the lux­ury of light at Port Au­gusta – and light is where the flavour and ma­tu­rity of the fruit comes from,” he says. “It means we’re able to achieve a re­ally high stan­dard of qual­ity by ripen­ing the fruit on the vine, which max­imises shelf life.” Pro­fes­sor Robert Park is the chair of sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture at the Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney. He sees Sun­drop Farms as a promis­ing de­vel­op­ment for farm­ing’s fu­ture. “I con­sider it to be ex­cit­ing tech­nol­ogy and in time, it will play a sig­nif­i­cant role in food pro­duc­tion,” he says. “It’s sus­tain­able, but it’s also scal­able to in­crease pro­duc­tion. And un­like a lot of agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion, it can be lo­cated any­where along the coast­line. “But the real ad­van­tages are that it’s en­ergy neu­tral and can pro­duce food all year round, in an en­vi­ron­ment that’s not sub­ject to ex­tremes like heat or wa­ter short­ages.” An­other fac­tor that sets Sun­drop Farms apart from con­ven­tional agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tions is it doesn’t rely on ni­tro­gen­based fer­tilis­ers, usu­ally pro­duced through an en­ergy-in­ten­sive ar­ti­fi­cial process. Pro­fes­sor Park says th­ese meth­ods help cre­ate em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties in ru­ral ar­eas – though he does point out that the like­li­hood is many of th­ese jobs will even­tu­ally be­come au­to­mated in the fu­ture. Ro­botic carts cur­rently trans­port pro­duce through to the pack­ing fa­cil­ity at Sun­drop, but all crops are har­vested by hand. Still, the South Aus­tralian com­pany is not without its crit­ics. Some ar­gue that for all its fancy tech­nol­ogy, the farm is solv­ing a prob­lem that doesn’t ex­ist – that Aus­tralia has no is­sue grow­ing toma­toes. Pro­fes­sor Park says this is rather short-sighted. “Peo­ple say­ing that are not re­ally look­ing at the big pic­ture. You could say we can grow toma­toes in the field, so what do you need green­houses for? That’s fine, but what’s go­ing to hap­pen in the fu­ture? With a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion we need to in­crease food pro­duc­tion sub­stan­tially. That’s where th­ese sys­tems hold great po­ten­tial.” Aus­tralia’s long been a world leader in sus­tain­able farm­ing. Our harsh con­di­tions have given farms lit­tle choice but to de­velop tech­no­log­i­cal an­swers to things like lim­ited rain­fall and low soil fer­til­ity. Pro­fes­sor Park points to de­vel­op­ments from nat­u­ral ge­netic engi­neer­ing of crops to make them more hardy and pest-re­sis­tant, through to pre­cise, Gps-guided trac­tors, and says it’s im­por­tant for com­pa­nies like Sun­drop to lead the way. “Our farm­ers have been very quick adopters of new tech­nolo­gies,” he says. “But if no­body is build­ing th­ese things and solv­ing prob­lems along the way, we’re never go­ing to ad­vance. We’re never go­ing to get bet­ter. I com­mend the peo­ple who take th­ese projects on be­cause they’re in­no­va­tors and they’re driv­ing change. But if no one does any­thing, it’s never go­ing to hap­pen.” Sun­drop Farms has since ex­panded, and now has fa­cil­i­ties in Odemira, Por­tu­gal and Ten­nessee in the US. There are also plans to build be­tween three and five ad­di­tional Aus­tralian sites over the next five years. “We’re not wor­ried about mar­ket share as much as we are about sat­is­fied cus­tomers and hav­ing a sus­tain­able busi­ness that’s prof­itable,” says Marafiote. “But one of our am­bi­tions is to be seen as an ex­am­ple of what can be achieved for the in­dus­try. If the in­dus­try is achiev­ing good things and we’re achiev­ing our ob­jec­tives, we’re happy.”


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