Australia’s food-rich regions feed the nation, but a year of storms and floods has repeatedly tested them and added to soaring prices for fresh fruit and vegetables.
Weather-related events are expected to increase in the future, but supply shortages across the country this year could be a thing of the past as growers use their ingenuity and turn to indoor farming to bolster food security. .
In a cavernous 4,000 square meter warehouse on the Gold Coast, young lettuce plants soon to be planted will be sheltered from the elements.
Stacked Farms is installing high trestles to grow crops under artificial light.
Commercial director Michael Spencer said he expects interest in “vertical farming” to continue to grow due to the increasing instability of the climate.
“Whether it’s flooding or pests, we seem to have one or the other every season and it’s getting more and more frequent,” he said.
“So indoor farming, or controlled environment farming as it’s called, I think you’ll see more progress in that space.”
When completed in July next year, the venture plans to produce around 400 tons of lettuce a year, supplying businesses such as local high-end restaurants and fast-food outlets.
It is also close to finishing research and development rooms to study indoor fruit and flower cultivation.
‘Grow anything, anywhere, anytime’
Australia is about a decade behind vertical farms in the US and Europe, but Professor Paul Gauthier from the University of Queensland thinks Australia can catch up.
He said the benefits of having a controlled environment would be of interest to many farmers facing an unpredictable climate.
“The biggest advantage is that I can tell you… what the weather will be like inside my farm next year, in two years, in five years, in 10 years and in 100 years,” said declared Professor Gauthier.
“The power of protected crops is to control the environment and to be able to predict what we do.”
Dr Gauthier said vertical farming and protected crops had the potential to end shortages in the supply of fresh food.
“You can grow anything, anywhere, anytime you want,” he said.
“You’re not limited by time, you’re not limited by climate, and you’re not limited by environment.”
Dr Gauthier said indoor farming could also help save exotic crops such as cocoa.
“Things like cocoa or coffee, vanilla, are going to disappear across the world because of climate change because it’s going to be too hot, or not the right conditions,” he said.
“We can certainly grow them in protected growing environments here in Queensland.”
power and money
Vertical farming and protected crops are not without challenges, however.
Setting up the necessary systems requires significant investment, putting them out of reach for some farmers.
But for Barden Farms in Queensland’s Lockyer Valley, about 100 kilometers west of Brisbane, the investment in cover crops has paid off.
When floods swept through the region earlier this year, some farms were out of service for months.
But national manager Nathan Clackson said workers were able to enter his greenhouse just days after the Gatton flood to harvest crops including basil and Asian greens.
“We literally stood here in rubber boots and picked up our crop,” Mr Clackson said.
The greenhouse, he said, has been the most consistent part of the business over the past 12 months.
“This year we had massive orders from some customers because their regular suppliers went out of business,” he said.
“They couldn’t compete in the winter.”
Reduced water and chemical requirements
Susan Buitendag, the company’s quality support manager for Queensland and Tasmania, said the greenhouse has also helped reduce water and chemical usage.
“We don’t fight pests and diseases so much inside the tunnel. I think we sprayed inside maybe once,” Ms Buitendag said.
And the greenhouse had also allowed them to produce a high quality and uniform crop, which the customers loved.
The amount of electricity needed is another barrier to indoor farming and with recent price spikes this has been an issue in Europe and the US.
Dr Gauthier said Australia was well placed to meet these challenges.
“One thing that Australia has in huge amounts is sunlight and I think there’s a lot of benefit to using solar panels and…we can put a farm next to it,” he said .
“The grid is going to be challenged by vertical farming…we need to think about the future and include that in the infrastructure we’re going to build for the future.”
The key to global food security
Data on the number of vertical farms and protected growing structures in Australia is still collected by the University of New England, but according to industry groups the sector was growing by up to 7% each year.
Dr Gauthier said that as the sector develops, Australia could play a major role in helping to improve global food security.
“We can grow a lot of food. Not necessarily for Australia, but also for the rest of the world – we could export even more and possibly help feed Southeast Asia,” he said.
“We can grow any type of food – that’s the advantage.”
For Michael Spencer, the world of indoor farming is full of opportunities.
“Nutraceutical extracts, pharma-grade products – we think there are a lot of opportunities as we move into new frontiers,” he said.
This story is part of a series published by ABC Queensland regional teams exploring the impacts and opportunities of climate change in their communities.
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