Boost for hi-tech greenhouse agriculture project

The seawater desalination greenhouse at Port Augusta will expand to 20 times its existing size.

Sundrop Farms, the company behind the greenhouse, has announced plans to invest about $5 million to increase its size to between 2ha and 4ha early next year.

The seawater greenhouse project, on the eastern shore of Upper Spencer Gulf, 20km south of Port Augusta, has been hailed for its potential to transform irrigated agriculture.

Sundrop Farms managing director Philipp Saumweber said testing of the innovative desalination technology had been an overwhelming success since its first trial crops last September.

The technology turns seawater into fresh water, with no brine returned to the environmentally sensitive Spencer Gulf in the process.

The company says the greenhouse’s seawater-drenched ventilation sterilises the air, making it possible to grow crops without pesticides.

The greenhouse will retain a research and development focus through a research agreement with the University College London’s campus in Adelaide.

Under a funding arrangement, a second-year master’s student is researching ways to use the sun to power the greenhouse and also to provide heating.

Mr Saumweber said the company would step up production in its second year, growing hydroponic tomatoes in the trial greenhouse in June.

The larger commercial greenhouse will produce a tomato crop worth an estimated $2.5 million to $3 million a year.

Sundrop Farms has developed solutions and technologies to grow sustainable crops in some of the planet’s driest regions, using renewable resources of seawater and sunlight. Mr Saumweber said the greenhouse had experienced technical problems with its roof because of incorrect plastic connectors but this had been resolved.

“Sundrop Farms has been capitalised to take on the new development which will cost about $5 million,” he said.

Mr Saumweber said the company would need between 13 and 20 extra staff.

“Once the new commercial greenhouse is in place, we will look at expanding again in 2013-14,” he said.

“We are also looking at establishing similar ventures in other arid parts of the world and we will train people at Port Augusta for other facilities around the world.”

The company has changed its name from Seawater Greenhouse to Sundrop Farms to better reflect its strategic emphasis.

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