'Lettuce' start a new container farming venture

'Lettuce' start a new container farming venture


Agribusiness
Modular Farms Australia director James Pateras.

Modular Farms Australia director James Pateras.

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At last week's TECHSPO, Modular Farms Australia director James Pateras, laid out a tantalising case for the technology to be a niche business on any Australian farm.

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ON the surface you might think hydroponics farming is for somebody else to try.

But at last week's TECHSPO, Modular Farms Australia director James Pateras, laid out a tantalising case for the technology to be a niche business on any Australian farm.

A former Victorian dairy farmer and a Deakin University graduate majoring in economics and finance, Mr Pateras is now firmly ensconced in a vertical farming system, growing herbs, and making money.

He also is a director of Modular Farms Australia, which is linked to its Canadian parent in Ontario.

Essentially the company manufacturer purpose-built containers (sea containers don't work) housing a hydroponics system to vertically grow any number of products.

Being modular, additional modules are available for multiple uses.

"One of the secrets of producing quality product is lighting and our company has partnered with world-leading experts in LED lighting, plant health sciences, and indoor agriculture to re-think the container farm from scratch," Mr Pateras said.

"We focus entirely on plant health and farmer return on investment (ROI), which was one of the first questions Mr Pateras answered after his talk.

"The downside is we use a lot of energy in our enterprise but balancing the costs is the fact we are producing a high value product which we can supply virtually on demand year-round," he said.

"And to mitigate power costs it could be supplemented by on-farm energy, either solar or biomass.

His company also supplied cold storage units to maintain freshness until product was transported to clients.

"It's a closed loop system and we have a particular LED light recipe that enhances the quality of produce we market," he said.

Mr Pateras also reiterated the diminishing amount of arable land available throughout the world for farming practices.

"So, for example, we can grow 44,000 lettuce heads a year in a 36 square metre space," he said.

"The land needed to achieve that would be 1000 square metres.

"So vertical farming is making more efficient use of land with year-round supply and scalability.

"There already is work going on to produce rice by hydroponics so as technology improves there may be a way to grow our main line crops the same way.

"But at the moment opportunities exist to grow fresh produce and compete on quality and timing."

Another business opportunity for farmers existed with using biomass.

Department of Primary Industry and Regional Development (DPIRD) researcher Ron Masters said biomass was a realistic cash crop for farmers.

"Biomass on farms would mainly come from animal waste, crop residues or purpose-grown crops," he said.

"It's a renewable resource which reduces the carbon footprint and has the potential to be a substitutive product.

"For example, it could be used for carbon offsets or as a substitution for diesel and ethanol fuels.

"Biomass can be used to create steam for industrial uses or for a generator, bio-hydrogen, biochar and plastics.

"But I think the big winner for farmers will be using it for high value chemicals."

Though Mr Masters didn't expand on this subject, it is well known that sugar constitutes 75 per cent of all biomass, and it can be obtained from many different sources such as cane, beet and corn.

Even wood and straw can be processed into sugars that can be converted to chemicals.

Mr Masters also said renewable diesel would "probably" be the next big thing before renewable chemicals.

"The hidden gem is oil mallees," he said.

"Things have changed since the early days and we now have a commercial operator in Kochi Oil at Darkan which is processing the oil mallees.

"The resultant biomass is there to collect to power a greenhouse system, for example."

Have a commercial operator in the State makes such a proposition more viable."

Mr Masters said that overseas, biomass was a big business in making bio-hydrogen, nitrogenous fertilisers, plastics and used as a wood replacement.

When asked about the potential for canola oil, Mr Masters said there was "massive investment" internationally in canola as a first generation biofuel.

"WA has ignored this area for a long, long time but the opportunities are there," he said.

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