desert farm 17000 tonnes of food
Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
January 20, 2020 ·  6 min read

Desert Farm Grows 17,000 Tons of Food without Soil, Pesticides, Fossil Fuels or Groundwater

Over the last five decades, the global demand for food has nearly tripled [1]. This is partly due to the rapid population growth the world has seen during that time, going from three billion people to over seven billion (and rising), as well as rising living standards and increased per-capita demand for food [2,7]. Experts are projecting that this population growth will continue, expecting it to increase by one third (approximately 2.3 billion people) by 2050. This growth also equates to an increased need for food, and the demand for cereal crops for both consumption and animal feed are expected to reach three billion tonnes in the next thirty years [3]. But one desert farm may be giving the world some hope.

Agriculture in the twenty-first century is facing many challenges. With fewer and fewer people going into farming, it has a smaller labor force but needs to produce more food to feed a growing population. The growing bioenergy market is placing a greater demand for feedstock production, and climate change is forcing the industry to adapt and look for more sustainable and efficient production methods [3]. Today more than ever we are in need of innovative new solutions in agriculture to feed our growing world. Sundrop Farms is leading the charge and has developed the world’s first solar and seawater-powered farm- in the middle of the desert [4].

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The First Desert Farm

Sundrop Farms has one mission – to grow the most delicious and natural fruits and vegetables that are better for people, better for the planet, and better for business [5].

Located in Port Augusta, South Australia, the company grows its primary crop, tomatoes, without the need for soil, fossil fuels, pesticides, or groundwater. Instead, the 49-acre desert farm uses only solar power and desalinated water to feed 180 thousand tomato plants [4].

The desert farm uses 23 thousand mirrors to reflect sunlight towards a receiver tower that stands 115 meters (377 feet) high. On a sunny day, the system can produce up to 39 megawatts of energy, which is enough to power both the desalination plant and supply the farm’s electricity needs [4].

The process has allowed the company to grow a crop in the area’s desert climate – a space that is unsuitable for traditional farming. Cardboard soaked in seawater helps to keep the plants cool during the hot summer months, and the solar heat keeps them warm in the winter. The plants are grown in coconut husks instead of soil, and the seawater helps to sterilize the air around the plants to allow them to thrive [4].

“Our system of farming doesn’t take from nature, and the waste is minimal. Our pioneering processes and technology divorce food production from finite natural resources such as water and fossil-fuel. We rely instead on renewable inputs such as seawater and sunlight. What’s more, when we can, we try to close the loop and reuse or recycle outputs from our farms. In other words, we’re doing more with less.” [6]

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The Major Challenges Facing Today’s Farmers

There are three major challenges facing today’s global food system: 

Feeding a growing population. The world’s population is expected to reach nearly ten billion by 2050 [8]. On top of that, developing economies whose incomes are growing are beginning to place a greater demand on meat, fish, and dairy [9]. These more expensive crops require more land and more resources to provide.

Providing a livelihood for farmers. Most of the people living in extreme poverty around the world live in rural areas where food production is the most important economic activity. Today, there are approximately 570 million farmers worldwide, with millions more working in the food industry in some capacity [8]. In today’s global economy, however, it is becoming increasingly difficult for farmers to make a living. We need farmers and agricultural workers to feed the world, but how can we expect them to do that if they can’t even afford to feed their own families?

Protecting the environment. We have reached a point in history when the environmental impact of human activity can no longer be ignored, and this holds especially true in the agricultural sector. Forty percent of the Earth’s surface is taken up by agricultural land, seventy percent of global water use goes toward crop irrigation, and eleven percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are a direct result of agricultural processes [8,10,11].

The environment is indirectly impacted by agriculture through deforestation to make room for more agricultural land, which increases greenhouse gas emissions further and causes a loss of plant and animal biodiversity [8].

None of these issues are isolated, and so cannot be addressed separately if we hope to have a real impact on the future food sustainability of our planet.

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Rethinking Traditional Agriculture

“Today’s agricultural processes demand huge amounts of energy and extract vast quantities of dwindling water from the earth. It’s a wasteful way to grow produce that often requires nasty chemicals. Even worse, it’s dramatically impacted by bad weather and disease, so prices fluctuate wildly. Ultimately today’s agricultural methods are not sustainable for producers, consumers or for the planet. The world needs a revolution. And it’s already begun.”

Sundrop Farms is addressing each of the three major challenges facing the agricultural industry today. The farm is expecting to produce 17 metric tonnes (37 thousand pounds) of tomatoes every year at a 10-year fixed price. 

“Because we do everything in a controlled environment, we know what our input costs are, and we’re doing everything on a renewable basis, we can provide real consistency of supply and a higher quality product at a better price year ’round,” Philipp Saumweber, chairman and CEO of Sundrop Farms, said [4].

The facility has also provided a significant boost to the Port Augusta economy, creating almost 200 jobs in the region and essentially starting an entirely new industry for the area [4].

“It also aligns with several of South Australia’s key economic priorities, including creating premium food and wine from our clean environment and growth through innovation,” said South Australia Premier Jay Weatherill [4].

The farm is also leading the industry in terms of environmentally sustainable agriculture. Sundrop Farms will produce its own freshwater to the tune of 18 million gallons each year and will displace the use of more than 2 million liters of diesel in the same amount of time [4].

The facility is also able to continue producing even during extreme weather conditions, an issue that has plagued farmers since the start of modern agriculture. When South Australia was hit by a massive storm back in 2016 and the entire region lost power for an entire day, Sundrop Farms was able to continue operations when others were incapacitated [4,12]. The company also uses no fertilizers or pesticides, instead, it uses specific bugs that destroy the pests that would harm the crops.

Building Towards a More Sustainable Future

It cost 200 million dollars to build the farm, but the company says that it is worth the long-term investment because they will never have to rely on fossil fuels. They are breaking farming’s dependence on non-renewable resources [13].

In the spring of 2019 Sundrop Farms was sold to trans-Tasman infrastructure investment firm, Morrison and Co. for an undisclosed amount [14]. They have already completed their first European farm in Portugal, and the first American facility is in the works in Tennessee [13].

As they state on their website: “Our system proves that it’s possible to feed the world with fresh fruit and vegetables that don’t cost the earth. Sundrop is a revolution in agriculture that will help reverse the gloomy trend of inefficient production and global warming. And hope for a better future for everyone is the ultimate bottom line.” [15].

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