Sundrop Farms: Growing Something Out of Nothing
In 2009, a new ag business decided to develop a sustainable method of producing high-quality produce anywhere, including places with poor soil, little freshwater, and limited access to grid energy. Now, they’re testing out this system on a commercial scale by growing tomatoes in the Australian desert.
Sundrop Farms has figured out how to make the desert bloom using sunlight, seawater, and little else.
On a 20-hectare plot located in arid Port Augusta, South Australia, 23,000 mirrors harness the sun’s energy to power a desalination plant. The one million litres of fresh water created here each day is then mixed with nutrients and used to grow hydroponic tomatoes in the facility’s greenhouses, which are also run on solar energy.
Annually, the farm will produce over 15,000 tonnes of truss tomatoes.
“Sundrop Farms system of farming was inspired by the need to overcome water shortage and quality issues in agriculture,” says Sundrop Farms CEO, Philipp Saumweber. “The Sundrop System employs existing technologies, which come together in a unique way that has not been employed before to grow produce on this scale.”
The $200-million facility, however, isn’t entirely reliant on renewable energy sources just yet. It still uses a small amount of grid energy as a back-up system and to help pump seawater to the desalination plant from the Spencer Gulf, which is 5.5 kilometres away.
Still, the existing efforts to decouple farming from the finite resources of freshwater, fossil fuels, and land will result in major wins for the planet. The Port Augusta facility, which opened in October 2016, will annually save enough freshwater to fill 180 Olympic swimming pools, the carbon dioxide equivalent of 500 cars, and enough diesel to drive around the equator 500 times, states a press release from Sundrop.
What’s more, the company employs natural farming practices alongside its high-yielding space-age technology. It uses carnivorous bugs to control pests and no chemical fertilisers, and employees pick weeds and produce entirely by hand. While labour intensive, Saumweber says this results in “significantly better” fruit for the consumer.
Of course, happy customers and a protected environment aren’t the only goals for Sundrop Farms. The ag business also aims to produce healthy, sustainable profits.
To reach its objectives, the company signed an exclusive, decade-long contract with Coles.
“Our 10-year partnership with Sundrop Farms is the longest-term contract we have ever signed for fresh produce and is testament to the confidence we have in the Sundrop team,” said Coles Merchandise Director, Chris Nichola.
The Australian supermarket chain, who needed to satisfy an increasing demand for tomatoes year-round, now sells produce from the Port Augusta facility throughout South Australia, Victoria, and New South Wales.
Coles isn’t the only one to have faith in Sundrop’s vision of sustainable and profitable agriculture. The South Australian Government granted AUD $6 million to the Port Augusta facility, and in 2014, global private equity firm KKR invested more than US $100 million to enable Sundrop’s expansion both in Australia and abroad.
“We are always interested in taking our farms into new markets, and we have learnt that we cannot succeed in this without the help of partners, both on a local and global scale,” said Sauweber.
Speaking of new markets, the future is looking bright—or, more accurately, green—for Sundrop Farms. The organisation broke ground on two new operations in 2016, one in Portugal and one in the US, and Saumweber says it is also “developing a number of new projects with partners all around the globe.”
Each of these facilities will be customized to meet its customers’ needs, much like how the Port Augusta farm works to supply Coles with tomatoes. As such, the upcoming projects will vary technology-wise, but Saumweber says they will all have the company’s “triple bottom line values of people, planet and profit at their heart.”
On a wider scale, there are some that believe Sundrop Farms is doing more than expanding their own business. Sundrop Farms Managing Director for Australia, Steve Marafiote, says the company is providing a blueprint for the future of fresh food production.
“Through the establishment of our high-tech greenhouse facilities, we are driving solutions for the production of healthy food in a manner that eradicates the impacts of variability to ensure sufficient supply of produce in line with consumer expectations, and ultimately promote long-term viability of farming in regions facing water and energy supply constraints,” he says.
Only time will tell, however, if more people will embrace the model and start growing food with little more than sunlight and seawater. Visit sundropfarms.com for more details.