As a result of the continuous growth of the minimum wages, Australian farmers and growers are highly interested in automation and mechanization. "The cost of labor is one of the key factors driving adoption of protected cropping in Australia", according to PCA chairman Robert Hayes.
Hayes is the chairman of Protected Cropping Australia, the industry body that unites professionals from the greenhouse, tunnel and indoor farming space Down Under. As the founder of Freshzest, one of Australia's largest indoor growers of fresh herbs and culinary leafy greens, Hayes knows all about the current challenges that he and his industry peers are dealing with from day to day.
"With 75 percent of our 24 million population living in one of the five metropoles of Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide or Perth, a key factor is producing in proximity to those areas. This has sprouted the development of greenhouse and protected cropping in Australia, as it allows companies to grow a competitive local and fresher alternative to produce that otherwise has to get trucked in or flown in at high transport cost."
Tomato leading the way
A good example of this development is the Australian table tomato sector, in which 4 large players kick-started large growth with high tech greenhouses. Over the last 8-10 years, they outpaced field-grown tomatoes with a better, stable quality product and through diversification in varieties and types, have grown the category.
According to Hayes, this is just one good example that justifies the use of greenhouse technology to grow better and fresher Australian produce. "One of the main reasons that protected cropping is so popular lies in the risk management factor. You can control the environment much better, grow a consistent quality year-round and have a lower impact on the environment as you can make optimal use of resources."
The PCA chair explained that this has opened the eyes of a lot of his peers to explore protected cropping practices in crops other than tomatoes too. "Currently there is a lot of interest in protected berry crops. The growth in PC in this industry has been phenomenal. Coming from open field, berry crops grown under a tunnel now dominate production in Australia, but the industry is now also looking to move towards hydroponic berry crops, including smart climate control solutions, glasshouses and special systems like retractable Cravo houses."
High tech cropping
Other important developments forecast by Hayes are in cucumber, eggplant and capsicum crops. "We expect more technological advances and a move towards high tech in these crops."
Hayes' own company Freshzest is also planning to expand its production as a result of the increasing demand for its product. They just received planning approval for a 2.5 hectare glasshouse development in Southern Australia. This project will also make use of the latest innovative technologies to decrease not only the environmental footprint of the produce, but the need for manual labor.
Pepper harvesting automation in the European Sweeper research project
"Just like almost every Australian producer, we are looking at labor-saving devices and technology. Think about automated harvesting as well as moving gullies etcetera. A greenhouse is a good environment to deploy automation and mechanization as you have advantages like boiler pipes over which efficient robotics can run."
In order to learn which of these robotics and other labor-saving technologies can make his operations less dependent on labor, Hayes says he will make sure to attend the upcoming PCA Conference in Adelaide this summer.
"This year, the conference will place a lot of emphasis on automation and LED lighting. We can learn from other industry colleagues and see and hear about the latest technology. Together with plenty of networking opportunities alongside the technical presentations, it's a unique event that brings together a very interesting mix of people."
Between 400 and 500 delegates are expected at the Adelaide Convention Centre from 9 to 12 July. Besides a trade show exhibition with more than 60 booths, the PCA has put together a very interesting two-day speaker program to address important topics and challenges that the Australian growers are currently facing. Click here to learn more about the 2017 APEX - Brinkman PCA Conference!