Farming in non-traditional environments

The first in our new series of blogs looking at issues connecting to agriculture
BY Sundrop Farms
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Here at Sundrop Farms we operate some of the most advanced greenhouses in the world, enabling us to grow sustainable produce all over the globe. This includes areas unsuited to traditional agriculture; our Port Augusta farm supplies over 15% of Australia’s tomatoes grown in an arid environment far from other commercial farming operations. We pride ourselves on being at the cutting edge of agriculture, and this includes being able to grow in places that nobody else does. Over the years we’ve discovered quite a lot about farming in places you wouldn’t expect to find farms, and thought we share a little of what we’ve learnt with you.

Whilst we love being pioneers, like-minded people have been farming (albeit on a smaller scale) in surprising places for millennia, both from necessity and from a entrepreneurial urge to experiment. Food has been grown in deserts for thousands of years; have a look at how the native peoples of the Sonoran Desert engineered the landscape. However, this was and is farming on a small scale to feed local populations, and is not designed to feed our hungry, growing population.

Those of us living in cities will have seen vans delivering micro-greens and salad leaves to trendy restaurants, but urban farming hasn’t always been the domain of bearded hipsters. City-dwellers have always used every inch of spare land to help feed themselves; the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan created artificial island gardens on the waters that surrounded and criss-crossed the city.  Slightly more recently, traditional allotments as we know them today have been around since the nineteenth century, when they were established throughout Europe to enable the poor to feed themselves, While urban farms may certainly look different today, the concept of farming in dense centres of population to feed people has been around for thousands of years.

At the other end of the spectrum, people have also been growing food in sparsely populated, hostile environments for just as long; far before the proto-hipster Aztecs were (probably) producing sweet potatoes shoots in their floating gardens, skillful gardeners were growing fruits and vegetables in the unpromising soil of the Amazon rainforest, and the entrepreneurial Vikings colonised Greenland and began farming a number of crops, including barley its barren land.

The Vikings lasted approximately 500 years in Greenland, before mysteriously abandoning their farms and villages. A new study has proposed climate change one of the factors behind their disappearance, and today it is our changing environment that means that farming of the future is going to have to look to new frontiers to help us to feed the world.

In addition to anthropomorphic climate change, a booming population is another reason why we need to begin farming in more unlikely places.  It is growing more quickly than at any point in history, meaning that global food demand will increase by an estimated 50% by 2050. Traditional agriculture is just not equipped to meet this demand, and we must all become smarter about both how we grow and where we grow. Hand in hand with this population growth comes the shrinking of land that has traditionally been used to grow. Agricultural land already covers 11% of the worlds surface (that’s the equivalent of turning almost the whole of Russia into one big farm), and if we are going to squeeze in all those extra people without destroying some of our most beautiful landscapes we are going to have to adapt our growing practices to new environments.

Like the Aztecs 500 years ago, one place we can get much smarter about growing in is our cities, and we have hugely impressed by urban farmers and their attempts to feed cities with hyper-local produce. Last year two of our team members visited Growing Underground to see what they are doing in disused World War Two shelters just across the Thames. We were blown away by the logistics and passion the team there were using to grow an amazing variety of salad leaves which is sold to some of London’s top restaurants. As well as subterranean facilities, urban farms are also looking to the sky for the next-generation food facilities, and some of the proposed designs are wonderful. Projects on a larger scale are currently under development or operating in New York, Quebec and Miyagi. Whilst at present these outfits only supply a fraction of the food needed to keep a city like London going, the father of vertical farming and his students have calculated that just 200 (admittedly rather large) buildings could grow enough people for everyone living in New York in the year 2050.

Closer to our area of expertise, Arid landscapes are another hugely (and huge) underused resource. Whilst it’s still not easy to grow in these dry but frequently beautiful climates, one of the keys is to harness what they have in abundance; sunlight,  vital to the growth of all plants. By focusing the pristine sunshine of Port Augusta using our CSP system we are able to provide heat, electricity and water (1,00,000 litres a day via our desalination plant) to grow 17,000 tonnes of tomatoes each year. Growing in deserts and arid places also means being clever about using water. For us his means growing hydroponically and using just the right amount of water; any that is not taken up is cleaned and used again. Given that agriculture consumes 70% of the worlds freshwater, and can contribute to hugely damaging droughts across the globe, everyone growing produce must take responsibility to make changes in the future.

Of course, growing in cities and deserts isn’t going to solve the problem of food shortages alone; we are also have to get much smarter about what we grow on existing fertile land, including using technology and big data to dramatically increase yields. A combination of these innovative ideas is going to be the pathway to feeding an estimated 10 billion people. Sustainably using all space available will go a long way to helping, and who knows, one day there will be no limits to where we can farm.

This is the first in a new series of blogs in which we will explore wider issues connected to agriculture. We would love to know what you think, and if you have any ideas for future posts please get in touch.

Where to next?