Ayr farmer dis­cusses his suc­cess with green­houses

Central and North Rural Weekly - - FRONT PAGE - AN­DREA DAVY An­[email protected]­ral­weekly.com.au

THE work of three young farm­ing brothers could be the cat­a­lyst for cre­at­ing a year-round sea­son for hor­ti­cul­ture in north Queens­land.

The el­dest Pir­rone brother, 28-year-old Ross, is fresh back from writ­ing his Nuffield Schol­ar­ship re­port on in­ter­na­tional pro­tected grow­ing sys­tems, how­ever, along­side sib­lings Josh, 27, and Chris, 26, the fam­ily has been mak­ing tracks in this field for years.

Cur­rently, the Pir­rones have a 2000-square me­tre green­house grow­ing le­banese cu­cum­bers in a trial at their Ayr farm – they have se­cured cus­tomers and are hav­ing suc­cess.

In the past they have planted, and col­lected data on, 32 va­ri­eties of toma­toes, eight of cu­cum­bers, eight of egg­plant and 15 types of cap­sicum.

Ross said fel­low farm­ers in the Bur­dekin dis­trict thought the in­door-crop­ping ven­ture was crazy, and were “wait­ing to see if we go broke”.

He joked that was a “good sign” and brushed off the crit­i­cism.

“It stacks up,” he said sim­ply.

“This is what the mar­ket wants. It can lead to a 12-month sup­ply.

“Right now, our sea­son stops when it gets too hot – this is a game changer re­ally.”

IN­NO­VA­TION

When the Ru­ral Weekly caught up with Ross he was about to start night shift in a coal mine. He is a qual­i­fied en­gine builder and is cur­rently us­ing that skill to cash in on the re­source boom.

His fam­ily is quick to jump on op­por­tu­ni­ties when they arise, and over the past six years they have trans­formed their cane farm into a mixed-en­ter­prise op­er­a­tion.

“We have di­ver­si­fied away from su­gar and have tried lots of dif­fer­ent crops. We have done beans, rice and have cat­tle,” he said.

“We will still do that, in ro­ta­tion, but we are now fo­cus­ing more on hor­ti­cul­ture.”

The green­house trial was al­ready un­der way when Ross won his Nuffield Schol­ar­ship in 2016.

He trav­elled the world in 2017, vis­it­ing Mex­ico, Is­rael, Ja­pan, the United States and the Nether­lands.

His re­port pro­vides a clear over­view of dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to pro­tected crop­ping, and the ad­van­tages and dis­ad­van­tages of these sys­tems.

“For any trop­i­cal in­door pro­tected crop­ping sys­tem, three core fea­tures are most crit­i­cal,” Mr Pir­rone said.

“Firstly, the struc­ture it­self is cru­cial. It must be sturdy enough to pro­tect crops from heat, while re­main­ing flex­i­ble enough to with­stand se­vere weather events.”

Ross said cy­clone-proof green­houses were pos­si­ble, to an ex­tent.

“Up to a Cat­e­gory 3 cy­clone it is pos­si­ble,” he said.

“There is a point, for some green­houses, where you have to open them up to let the wind through. Do­ing this could dam­age the crop, so you could lose a crop but not the struc­ture.”

The other key fea­tures were the grow­ing medium, be it soil or hy­dro­ponic, and ir­ri­gation meth­ods.

The re­port de­tails how a strate­gi­cally se­lected and de­signed pro­tec­tion struc­ture can ex­tend the grow­ing sea­son for cer­tain pro­duce.

“In Cu­li­a­can, Mex­ico, I was able to com­pare four main crops (cap­sicum, cu­cum­ber, egg­plant and toma­toes) across var­i­ous hous­ing struc­tures,” he said.

“When I vis­ited, the tra­di­tional grow­ing sea­son was wind­ing down, and crop qual­ity was nearly un­vi­able in most sys­tems ex­cept for the re­tractable roof sys­tem.

“Crops un­der the re­tractable roof were still per­form­ing ex­ceed­ingly well.

“While it is one of the more ex­pen­sive sys­tems to in­stall, the ben­e­fits from weather and in­sect pro­tec­tion, and an ex­tended grow­ing sea­son, were com­pelling and pro­vided a real re­turn on in­vest­ment.”

Ross de­scribed learn­ing the ropes of green­house farm­ing as a chal­lenge, par­tic­u­larly be­cause avail­able in­for­ma­tion in Aus­tralia was from vastly dif­fer­ent grow­ing re­gions to north Queens­land.

“I think a saviour for us was that we came into this from a su­gar back­ground, not a

IN­VEST­MENT

Ross said the main bar­rier stop­ping north­ern Aus­tralian’s near bil­lion-dol­lar fruit and veg­etable in­dus­try jump­ing on board with pro­tec­tive crop­ping was cost.

So far, his fam­ily has in­vested about $250,000.

He es­ti­mates the set-up of a com­mer­cially vi­able sys­tem to be about $4–5 mil­lion. How­ever, he shrugged off that gov­ern­ment in­cen­tives were the an­swer.

“Again, if it stacks up it stacks up,” he said.

“Gov­ern­ment sup­port would

I think we need to change things dras­ti­cally oth­er­wise we will get left be­hind. — Ross Pir­rone

be help­ful to kick the ball along, but at the same time, pri­vate en­ter­prise will find a way.”

A col­lab­o­ra­tive ap­proach was es­sen­tial, he said.

“Open con­sul­ta­tion and tri­alling is needed to min­imise fail­ure risk on a large scale.

“Farm to farm col­lab­o­ra­tion and a shar­ing of re­search data and re­sources will cre­ate an ef­fi­cient way to fast-track the de­vel­op­ment of cho­sen pro­tected tech­nolo­gies, and in­crease the like­li­hood of suc­cess.

“Although com­pletely unique, and tai­lored to our crop and lo­cal con­di­tions, our re­search has paved the way and en­abled us to show other grow­ers and cus­tomers that the trop­i­cal north can of­fer af­ford­able, high-vol­ume pro­duc­tion of fruit and veg­eta­bles on a con­sis­tent, year-round ba­sis.

“This is ex­tremely ex­cit­ing for us, and bodes well for the broader north­ern hor­ti­cul­tural in­dus­try as well.”

In his study, Ross ex­am­ined an Is­raeli green­house work­ing well in a desert and pe­rused over high-tech soil-less Ja­panese in­ven­tions.

But, the biggest thing he learnt while abroad was that the Aus­tralian in­dus­try needed to be proac­tive.

“You hear every­one bang­ing on about how good and clean Aus­tralian agri­cul­ture is, and I agree,” he said.

“But, what I learnt was the rest of the world, in a lot of as­pects, is bet­ter.

“Maybe we are in a sort of bub­ble here. I think we need to change things dras­ti­cally oth­er­wise we will get left be­hind.”

Full re­port on­line at c http://nuffield­in­ter­na­tional. org/live/Re­port/AU/2016 /ross-pir­rone

PHOTO: CON­TRIB­UTED

STUDY TOUR: Nuffield scholar Ross Pir­rone shares in­sight on the po­ten­tial of green­house farm­ing.hor­ti­cul­ture back­ground, so we didn’t have any pre­con­ceived ideas,” he said.“All the in­dus­try stan­dards for pro­tected crop­ping, when it comes to the south­ern (Aus­tralian) tech­niques and perime­ters, you need to chuck all of that out of the win­dow.“We had to start again, it’s to­tally dif­fer­ent up here.”

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