South Australian tomato farm skips fertile soil for sun and the sea
How do you grow tomatoes in the desert? With lots and lots of water, and some coconuts. Oh, and greenhouses, cutting-edge solar collection towers, and maybe some desalinization facilities. This probably isn’t the shopping list you’d take to your local gardening store, but it’s not as impractical it might sound. A company called Sundrop Farms has opened a $200 million facility in Port Augusta, Australia, with plans to sell more than 16,500 tons of tomatoes on an annual basis. The fact that this farm eschews traditional farming so much is actually key to the whole concept.
Adapting agriculture to the desert
What Sundrop Farms was looking for in south Australia was space, sun and access to the ocean. Things like soil and ground water were overlooked, because they were there and they wouldn’t be needed. To get around the need for quality soil, the tomatoes are grown hydroponically, with shaved coconut husks, called coir, providing nutrients. Hydroponic tomatoes are nothing new, but they obviously require a fair amount of water, which is where a lot of the bigger equipment comes into the story.
To get enough water in a Port Augusta’s desert climate, Sundrop Farms looked to the sun and the ocean. Desalinization plants provide over 260,000 gallons of water a day, which is used to both water plants and cool the greenhouses. Processing seawater requires a lot of power, which is then provided by the farm’s solar collection towers. The mostly sunny climate also offers plenty of solar energy, which can power desalinization processes and help maintain a stable environment for the tomatoes. By cutting out needs for soil, tilling, fresh water and more, the farm’s carbon footprint is smaller than comparable, traditional growers by around 28,000 tons per year.
This method of farming can’t be used for all produce, and the costs build this kind of facility will probably keep plenty of tomatoes in the soil for many more years. However, for some parts of the world, those costs are much more practical, because not every country has access to sufficient water and farmland. Desert countries, such as in the Middle East, may find that a technologically advanced farm may still be more practical than skipping tomatoes altogether.
My second grader asked: Do kids live on the farm?
The Sundrop facility in Port Augusta isn’t the kind of farm you see in picture books or political advertising. Rather than a single family milking cows, collecting eggs and working in the field, these greenhouses employ a variety of workers, from harvesters to solar energy engineering experts. But while they’re not a traditional ‘farm’ in just about any way, they aren’t too exclusive about who can work there— if you’re interested, they make a point of hiring for people’s interest levels, not expertise.
Source: Growing food with seawater and solar power by Ryan Rifai, Al Jazeera