Nuffield Australia 2016 Scholar
Uncovering the potential of protected cropping in tropical Australia
With consumers demanding more affordable, consistent and high quality produce all year round, it is highly likely, if not inevitable, that horticulture production will move to protected growing systems to meet this future demand. That’s according to a report released today by north Queensland based horticulturalist, Ross Pirrone. Mr Pirrone was supported by the Hort Innovation Leadership Fund and the Sylvia and Charles Viertel Charitable Foundation to undertake research into commercial greenhouse production, and ways that horticultural producers can increase the quality and consistency of produce supply, while keeping costs down. The challenges Mr Pirrone and his brothers faced in establishing a protected production system on their family property at Ayr, 100 kilometres south of Townsville, led him to use his Nuffield Scholarship to investigate horticultural production systems in countries with similar climates to northern Queensland.
“Northern Australian fruit and vegetable production is a near billion-dollar industry. With their primary objective of creating value for growers, Hort Innovation could see the exciting potential that protected production models could unlock for northern horticulture, and this, combined with the support I received from the Viertel Foundation, made my research possible.”
Detailing production systems used throughout Mexico, Israel, Japan, the United States and the Netherlands, the report provides a clear overview of different approaches to protected cropping, and associated advantages and disadvantages of these systems.
“For any tropical indoor protected cropping system, three core features are most critical. Firstly, the structure is crucial. It must be sturdy enough to protect crops from heat, while remaining flexible enough to withstand severe weather events. Secondly, the growing medium, be it soil or hydroponic, can have a major bearing on yield. Thirdly irrigation methods are as important as they are in the outdoors.”
The report details how a strategically selected and designed protection structure can extend the growing season for certain crops.
“In Culiacan, Mexico, I was able to compare four main crops (capsicum, cucumber, eggplant and tomatoes) across various housing structures. When I visited, the traditional growing season was winding down, and crop quality was nearly unviable in most systems except for the retractable roof system. Crops under the retractable roof were still performing exceedingly well. While it is one of the more expensive systems to install, the benefits from weather and insect protection, and an extended growing season, were compelling and provided a real return on investment.”
Mr Pirrone’s research also took him to Japan, where he investigated the advantages and disadvantages of soil-less growing mediums. At the highly productive Spread Co. horticulture business, he discovered that the yield potential of soil-less growing systems was consistently higher than most traditional methods.
“Spread Co. is an indoor, leafy green production facility comprising a 2.8 hectare factory, with 2.5 hectares under production. The system includes a 16 level tiered system, with soil-less hydroponic water re-circulation systems and artificial grow lights. This cutting-edge facility allows the operators to actively grow plants 24/7, every day of the year, yielding over 7.7 million head of four green varieties per annum.”
While protected cropping systems present producers with numerous advantages in terms of yield, climate control and bio-security protection, Mr Pirrone’s report also examines potential disadvantages of various protection systems.
“For a move to protected cropping to be of benefit, a degree of collaboration is required to ensure that the risk is spread. Open consultation and trialling is needed to minimise failure risk on a large scale. Farm to farm collaboration and a sharing of research data and resources will create an efficient way to fast-track the development of chosen protected technologies, and increase the likelihood of success.”
For his own business, two to three years of research and development, trialling and experimentation has led to good results. It has seen the business become a prime example of the potential that northern Australian horticultural enterprises have.
“Although completely unique, and tailored to our crop and local conditions, our research has paved the way and enabled us to show other growers and customers that the tropical north can offer affordable, high-volume production of fruit and vegetables on a consistent, year round basis. This is extremely exciting for us, and bodes well for the broader northern horticultural industry as well,” he said.