Making food from deserts

Green Lifestyle magazine

Growing vegies on arid land is made possible by a solar-powered desalination plant.


The bounty of tomatoes grown on the arid land at Sundrop Farm are sold in a nearby town, and to local growers for on-selling.


Sundrop Farm’s tomato-growing greenhouse in South Australia.

Cropping area

Sundrop Farm has a large 'cropping area' which can produce masses of food.


Seventy metre long solar collectors power Sundrop Farm's greenhouses.

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It sounds like the beginning of a joke: a German investor from the UK buys a farm in South Australia’s outback to grow some tomatoes. One South Australian community may have seen it that way at first. Yet, the Sundrop Farms commercial greenhouse project on Port Augusta’s dusty outskirts is putting this little port town on the world map with its revolutionary approach to sustainable farming. And local residents are rallying behind it.

Since 2010, a small group of engineers, entrepreneurs and horticulturalists from all corners of the globe have been working on a 2,000m3 dirt plot to show how it’s possible to produce top quality vegetables in dry regions, using sunlight and seawater.

There’s nothing new about making heat and electricity with solar power, or taking fresh water from oceans using desalination. “The project’s real innovation is how these technologies are put together to provide irrigation, heating and cooling for growing food at lower operating costs,” explains German investor and Sundrop Farms CEO Philipp Saumweber. As rising fossil fuel prices and dwindling water supplies put increasing pressure on commercial food growers, this world-first pilot could offer a self-sufficient solution “to address the food, energy, water nexus all in one go”, Saumweber says.

Despite our famed status as the driest continent on earth, Australia is among the largest guzzlers of water for its population globally, with three-quarters of our nation’s consumption going to agriculture. With only one per cent of all water on earth available as fresh water, competition for this limited resource is intensifying. The situation is made worse with population growth and climate change.

Many local farmers are already feeling the effects of widespread drought and water shortages. And future scenarios paint a gloomier picture with more variable rainfall and uncertain water supplies. According to the recent Climate Commission’s Critical Decade 2013 report, “Water demand and availability will be the most critical determinant of future agricultural productivity in Australia.”

By using desalination to extract fresh water from the Spencer Gulf, Sundrop Farms is tackling this issue head on. The farm produces 10,000 litres of fresh water from seawater each day. “Sundrop Farms is a leading example of how Australian agriculture can benefit from the smart use of desalination technology into the future, especially since we have plenty of coastline and sunshine,” says Neil Palmer, CEO of the National Centre of Excellence in Desalination Australia (NCEDA) at Western Australia’s Murdoch University.

The amount of available sunshine in Port Augusta is “mind-boggling”, head grower David Pratt says. Taking advantage of this is a 70 metre long array of solar collectors, which power the Sundrop Farms greenhouses where vegetables can be grown all year round – compared to the eight-month season Pratt had been used to in his home country of Canada. And he’s also happy for the silence of this sun-run site compared to traditionally noisy greenhouses.

It’s a quiet tropical wonderland of lush greens and reds behind the glass, where tomatoes, capsicums and cucumbers grow in towering rows. Nutrient-rich and tasty, the produce is free from pesticides and herbicides, thanks to a seawater-drenched ventilation system, making it appealing to discerning Australian consumers. Beneficial insects are also used to fight white fly larvae and aphids. The salt retrieved from the desalination process is used in fertilisers or sold to agricultural producers.

Current supplies are sold in town and to other local growers for on-selling, with future expansion set to produce more than 15,000 tonnes of tomatoes a year for metropolitan markets across the country. The site’s expansion is already well underway to create a 20-hectare farm equivalent in size to 20 rugby fields. When fully operational in 2015, it will employ 200 people and produce about 2,000m3 of fresh water per day.

In its infancy, this project is already a shining a light on the potential to feed communities from arid regions with some smart engineering to capture nature’s abundant gifts.