The Future of Farming

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-By Claire Suttles

Rows of hydroponically grown crops in massive glass houses with a complex computerised system used to control heating, cooling, and irrigation – it may sound like a science fiction scenario for colonising Mars, but could actually be the future of Australian farming. High tech advances in greenhouses, combined with increasing environmental concerns, are quickly pushing agriculture indoors.

Indoor farming provides a green solution for many environmental concerns and can vastly increase yields. Faber Glasshouses owner Folco Faber explains that, “when you grow in a greenhouse you grow in hydroponic growing trays, so all the water stays in the system and it’s recycled and reused. Your water efficiency is about 500 per cent more efficient than in the field.” Mr Faber also points out that “you are growing much more intensively per square metre” than with traditional methods, so larger numbers of people can be fed using a smaller amount of resources, and the commercial grower often sees a sharp increase in revenue. This is particularly important in the face of climate change, global poverty, and the increasing scarcity of arable land. “It doesn’t matter if the land is unusable for field production if you put a greenhouse there,” Mr Faber explains.

Crops grown outdoors are at the mercy of their environment. Greenhouses, on the other hand, protect plants from pests and unfavourable weather conditions, hazards that have plagued farmers since the first seed was sown millennia ago. These perils may be on the rise due to global climate change, making crops in the field even more vulnerable. Bringing commercial farming indoors cuts out insects and the need for toxic pesticides and the associated health risks. Furthermore, Mr Faber says, “If you are indoors you control the climate. It’s all computer controlled heating and cooling systems… With field growers, they can’t be sure if there’s going to be a big rainstorm and the whole crop is going to get washed out. You have a greenhouse and your crop is safe and it is a continuous supply.” Unfortunately, many local farmers recently experienced these hazards first hand. “Eighteen months ago, with the floods up in Queensland, a lot of the field growers got wiped out,” Mr Faber reports. “And that’s increased demand.”

Faber Glasshouses is currently working on a project that takes greenhouse sustainability even further. “Nowadays, greenhouses are being used for means other than just the traditional vegetable and flower crops, which is why we have coined the term of a BioFactory.” A BioFactory takes the greenhouse concept further – it is a complete biological system with a high level of technology which can incorporate many different growing systems.

A good example of the Biofactory principle is a current project in Western Sydney for a company dedicated to creating and increasing urban food production. This ‘BioFactory’ is a multi-level greenhouse designed to take indoor farming to new heights by expanding the variety of crops grown and the overall efficiency. The Sydney based prototype contains fish tanks on the bottom level and rows of lettuce above. “Basically the fish produce CO2, which plants really like, so the plants will then take that CO2 and increase their production,” Mr Faber explains. “Also, they’re going to be using the waste from the fish and recycling so that the whole system stays closed. So you’ve got no runoff of the water. It’s all being recycled and reused.”

“Seventy per cent of the world’s population are living in urban areas,” Mr Faber says. “Traditionally, greenhouses are in quite remote areas… but this particular company is trying to produce our food within the urban environment. The project will be a world first with some of the things they are doing.” Greenhouses have many urban applications, and Mr Faber reports that rooftop greenhouses are fast becoming a hip and environmentally friendly way for New Yorkers to keep a kitchen garden. “At this stage in Australia it is very much a concept,” he adds. “But I think it is only a matter of time before it will happen.”

Increasing efficiency has always been the core motivation for indoor farming. Mr Faber explains that the concept of intensive greenhouse production was developed in the Netherlands, where “they’ve got a really small landmass so they had to use the land they’ve got very efficiently… to produce as much as they could with what they had.” And, Mr Faber adds, “even now they are still the market leaders.” Faber Glasshouses was borne out of the Dutch tradition and know-how by Mr Faber’s Father, Leo Faber, who immigrated to New Zealand from the Netherlands in the 1970s. At first, he worked as a foreman for a greenhouse construction outfit, but soon decided he could “do things better himself,” and launched his own company. “We had a factory out back of our house initially,” Mr Faber remembers. “Dad was always out there. And then it grew and grew, of course.” Around a decade ago, the company expanded operations to Australia. Today, Faber Glasshouses sets itself apart by being the only Australian based company to manufacture its own greenhouses. “All of our competition is from Europe,” Mr Faber explains. Manufacturing locally is important because, in an industry where the product is similar from one manufacturer to another, the team sets themselves apart by offering a more personalised service than can be provided from overseas.

Faber Glasshouses also stands out by offering a full solution through one point of contact. “We put a full package together which offers the greenhouse, all the heating systems, the climate control computer system, and electrical,” Mr Faber explains. Customers come to the company with a laundry list of needs – from the kind of plant they intend to grow to the type of cooling and heating system they want – and the team takes care of everything. Faber Glasshouses manufactures the greenhouse itself, and then subcontracts the climate control operations and on-site building. The end result is an individualised product and a hassle-free shopping experience.

Customers can require an almost endless amount of variations, and Faber Glasshouses strives to meet all of them. “It is really important to listen to the customer,” Mr Faber says. “At the end of the day, without our customers we’re nothing. Even if something they’re asking is really difficult or out of the ordinary, we always try and do whatever we can to satisfy them because they are why we are in business.”

Size, materials, ventilation capacity, and climate control ability are some of the features which can be customised. Different types of glass, for example, are specially designed to allow specific levels of light transmission for different growing needs – from standard glass with 89 per cent light transmission, to new types of glass with special antireflective coatings that allow over 94 per cent light transmission. The technology is advancing rapidly, Mr Faber says, because “every 1 per cent of light they can get equals 1 per cent more production. So the more light people can get the more money they’re going to make.” Many customers are also choosing taller greenhouses. “The lower the greenhouse the less control you have over the temperature because you have to ventilate more often and you have to use your cooling systems more often,” Mr Faber explains. “The higher the greenhouse gets the less often you have to do that. This results in less temperature fluctuations, which means higher production because the plants are less stressed… Five years ago people were building greenhouses five metres high, now its six metres and seven metres.” Faber Glasshouses doesn’t just build tall. The team has made greenhouses “as big as you can think,” Mr Faber says. “We’ve built greenhouses of over 10 hectares – that’s 100,000 square metres.” The standard size runs in the 10,000 to 20,000 square metre range, “but there are a lot of big corporates out there who would build in 100,000 square metre lots.” And it’s not as expensive as you might think. “We can manufacture and build a six metre high glasshouse of 10,000 square metres for under $80 per square metre. Economies of scale are important too so a bigger structure provides even more savings. Given these costs we are seeing demand for our structures for applications such as packing sheds, storage areas and other non-traditional uses.”

Greenhouse manufacturing is a growing industry in Australia as increasing numbers of commercial farmers turn to more sustainable and efficient farming methods. In New Zealand, where Faber Glasshouses originated, “they had a really big boom in greenhouses about six or seven years ago,” Mr Faber reports, “and now the industry has matured.” Australia, however, still has “a lot of field production out there,” and a need for more greenhouses. Looking ahead, Mr Faber says that the team is committed to meeting Australia’s indoor farming needs. “Obviously, we want to continue our work in Australia because it is a very good market for us and we are supported very well by our customers,” he explains. However, the company is also looking farther afield, particularly to emerging Asian markets. The team is confident that they can offer a solution to many of agriculture’s greatest challenges and want to reach a larger number of potential customers. “We would be happy to share our knowledge with anyone,” Mr Faber summarises.

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

July 27, 2021, 3:48 PM AEST