Vegetables flourish in greenhouse crop

30 Mar, 2017 02:00 AM
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Project manager Kerry Dell'Agostino (left), Wide Open Agriculture managing director Ben Cole and head grower Damien Rigali have seen the greenhouse crop flourish under controlled environmental conditions.
This is really our pilot plant and we're just learning what's working and what's not.
Project manager Kerry Dell'Agostino (left), Wide Open Agriculture managing director Ben Cole and head grower Damien Rigali have seen the greenhouse crop flourish under controlled environmental conditions.

FRESH vegetables grown in the Wheatbelt are now being delivered across the Great Southern, following the harvest of Wide Open Agriculture's first greenhouse crop.

Tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, capsicums, leafy greens and a variety of herbs are now readily available in towns surrounding the Arthur River greenhouse site, and if the first crop is anything to go by, there's plenty more to come.

The half hectare "smart shade house" was imported from Canada and took six weeks to install at the end of 2016.

The first plots were planted in the height of summer in mid-January, but controlled environmental conditions have allowed the horticultural crop to thrive without the use of any chemicals.

Project manager Kerry Dell'Agostino said the crop had exceeded expectations.

"We're so impressed, we had cucumbers a week or two early, we've had very little pressure," she said.

"The plants are so much less stressed because there's just optimal growing conditions all of the time."

The automated greenhouse uses a range of sensory equipment to maintain ideal growing conditions.

"We have an inside and an outside weather station that measure temperature, rain, wind speed, humidity inside, air temperature inside, leaf temperature," Ms Dell'Agostino said.

"If the leaves get too hot we get signals for it (the roof) to close and make shade, so the plants are so much less stressed because there's just optimal growing conditions all the time."

Water for the vegetables is sourced from on-farm dams that are protected with evaporative covers and is transported to a holding tank using solar pumps.

Head grower Damien Rigali said compared to a trial crop planted outside the greenhouse, the plants inside the controlled environment had flourished.

"I've put the same practices inside and outside and you wouldn't believe it, the ones outside they probably won't yield much, they've been insect damaged, heat and wind damaged," he said.

"This protected cropping system I think is going to take off in the next five years."

Once harvested, produce is cleaned and packaged on site and delivered to customers in Kojonup, Katanning, Wagin, Williams, Narrogin, Brookton, Pingelly and Perth.

Wide Open Agriculture managing director Ben Cole said having the greenhouse in close proximity to regional towns meant shelf life was extended.

"They're loving the produce because the shelf life has gone from what used to be quite short to much longer because they're getting it basically the day we pick it," Mr Cole said.

The greenhouse is just one part of Wide Open Agriculture's regenerative agriculture plan "for the Wheatbelt, in the Wheatbelt."

The company has partnered with Dutch foundation Commonland, and plans to extend the project across WA.

Mr Cole said following the success of the initial stages of the Arthur River greenhouse, the possibilities for expansion were promising.

"The beauty of these is that they are like pieces of Lego, you can just build more and more of them," he said.

"As long as you've got good water of the right quality you can put them in other places, so we're really keen to talk to shires all around the Wheatbelt to see if they'd like a local food production hub where instead of getting it after a five-hour journey from Perth, you can get it a 20-minute drive away.

"It would be really exciting to have different climatic zones and then see what's growing and what's growing well.

"This is really our pilot plant and we're just learning what's working and what's not, but also making some good sales out of it too which is exciting."

Mr Cole said the project had the potential to bring more jobs to regional WA, and repopulate regional centres.

He said the company had worked to establish relationships with migrant and refugee groups to introduce new faces to regional areas.

"What we really want is new Australians to stay in the Wheatbelt because they are willing and interested in working in agricultural industries and they are willing to really relocate and sort of start a new life because there's cheaper housing, there's great schools and there's good health care," he said.

"It's a great opportunity for someone to make a foundation and a start."

The team is already working with farmer Stuart McAlpine on a 300 hectare demonstration property at Buntine.

The property has been split into three diversified zones including cereal cropping, saltbush and sheep, and a revegetation section.

"The idea is that we get a return from each of the different zones but through different mechanisms," Mr Cole said.

Looking to the future, Wide Open Agriculture is working towards listing on the Australian Stock Exchange.

"We just think trying to attract new, really fresh investment is an exciting part of what we're trying to do," Mr Cole said.

"Building that sort of sense of co-ownership, that's a real focus for us we want as many people in the Wheatbelt involved in the company."

Mr Cole said the company also had ambitions to export produce to Asian and Middle Eastern markets.

"The idea is to radiate out, fill up the Wheatbelt, fill up Perth and then if we can go to export that's the goal," he said.

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