Rise of City Farm?

I was recently at the National Youth Conference in Canberra on the agricultural work group, our role was to discuss and develop agricultural policy from the preceptive of Australia’s youth. The work group brought together individuals from a range of backgrounds who all a passion for agriculture and wanted to help feed the world into the future. Amongst the many topics that were discussed at the conference one of the ideas that came out of the conference was the concept of the city farm. This is not my idea and its not even a new idea but I believe it is a good one that hasn’t been looked at strongly enough and will have a great potential in feeding the looming world population of nine billion by 2050.

Firstly though I would like to clear up want my definition of a “city farm” is as the definition of what a city farm is was something that we had some trouble with. By my definition a city farm is commercial scale operation in an urban area that produces food hydroponics and aquaculture or a combination of the two. This differs from other definition that many other assumed, that definition being a network of community and roof top gardens. While I have no problem with these smaller community projects they are not a realistic method of feeding the world’s rapidly rising population.

The need for new and innovate ways to produce more food for the world using less land and inputs is becoming more apparent as issues like climate variability, mining and urban encroachment take their toll. We will need to produce more food with less land and less water in order feed the world, I also believe that we will need to be closer to our markets in the future as fuel prices continue to rise making cost effective transport more difficult. In order to achieve this I believe that we will need city farms that can produce large scale commercial crops.

Closed hydroponics have been shown to recycle over 95% of the water in the system (Practical Hydroponics and Greenhouses) as there is no evaporation and no leaching so the only water that is lost is the water used by the plants. It also uses 30-40% less fertiliser than regular cropping (Woolworths Article) as the nutrients are in a contained system and like the water only nutrients used by the plants are removed from the system. These systems would be much efficient in terms of water and nutrients allowing much more food to be produced from the same inputs.

I believe that aquaculture also has a role to play in the future of city farming as fish can be grown indoors in large tanks. While there is currently some concern about the sustainability of fish farming due the fish-meal comprising of mainly wild caught fish I believe that they could be fed on grubs and larvae that are cultured in waste products. The two systems may even be linked together into a system called “aquaponics”

Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics where the waste water from the fish tanks is filtered though the hydroponic system allowing the plants to feed on the waste from the fish. This closed system again works to save water and nutrients through limiting loss to the outside environment so all that is lost is what the plants and fish use.

I understand that in order to build and run one of these city farms the costs will be huge and there will be a massive need for labour. But there is already commercial  aquaculture and hydroponic farms so I know its possible and while I am unaware of any in Australia there is already farms overseas using aquaponic technology.

Will it be for me?

Probably not, I much prefer the open spaces of the country to the crowded concrete jungle and view from the tractor cab to the bumper to bumper grid lock. I believe that there will still be a place for conventional farming in the future but I also believe this is something that has the potential to feed the worlds ever growing population.

 

To read an article in “The Land” on city farms click here

And to read about the worlds largest vertical farm click here

Are these the farms of tomorrow?

 

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A New Year

2014 has drawn to an end and 2015 has started, I rang in the New Year the only way I know how, starting siphons to irrigate cotton a tradition I have kept up for the last six years. So what will the New Year hold for Agriculture?

First up I think we are hoping for rain, with a large portion of the country being drought declared and a rural debt crisis looming widespread, continued rain is needed desperately. While a subsidy free industry is important for an efficient and financially sustainable farming sector a drought like the one that we are currently experiencing can send many viable farms under and foreclosure isn’t a good option for anyone including the banks. As a sudden infux of farms on the market would drop land values impacting on surviving farms as well. Aside from rain the only way that I can see out of this situation is through low interest loans from the government. So my first hope for the New Year is widespread rain or failing that the continuation of low interest loans.

Secondly I would like to see the strengthening of the farm trespass and immediate reporting of video of animal abuse laws. As animal activists have not only continued to illegally break into and survey farms but some have also upped their agenda to sabotage, such as the recent example in Western Australia where anti live export activists burnt out a truck and cut the break lines on two other trucks. While I can’t imagine that tougher laws will deter these people that are acting out of ideology but it they are caught it may keep them off the streets for a while longer. The immediate reporting of genuine animal abuses would not only be a better outcome animals in distress but would stop groups holding onto emotive footage to use at times of political advantage.

My third desire for 2015 would be the increase of Australian Agriculture’s voice, we have a great story to tell and each year we are connecting with Australians but there is still more to be done. We are still being confronted with waves of misinformation that mislead the general public and fail to accurately portray the image of Australian Agriculture. It is up to us as an industry to tell the story of Australian Agriculture, who we are, what we do, why we do it and fight emotion with fact.

I hope we can achieve these things in 2015, telling the story of Australian Agriculture while getting tough on the illegal activities of activists, but most of all I hope that it rains and the drought stricken farmers get the relief that they need.

Happy New Year to all 🙂

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NZ Irrigation – Part 4

When we reached the next farm couple of kilometres down from Mike’s property we immediately noticed the centre pivot on either side of the driveway. Manager Craig Wellington met us as we got off the bus and immediately blew us away with some incredible production statistics for the 1200ha property.

Each year they finish off 30,000 lambs and 1,000 Friesian bulls while also cropping a variety of high value crops on their 360ha of irrigated cultivation including tomatoes, sweet peas, maize and sweet corn. The tour was just blown away by those statistics and I think it just goes to show how productive New Zealand and Heretaunga Plain can be, along with how well it is managed by Craig.

As the tour group recovered from the shock of those statistics we ventured out into the field to look at one of the swing arm centre pivots. This type of centre pivot works in the same way as most other centre pivots, in that it followers a buried wire to find its way around the field. The main difference is that instead of it being one rigid structure the end section has the ability to bend or turn. The swing arm on the end of the pivot allows the centre pivot to get into the corners of a field and cover more area. This means that instead of getting the classic circle shaped field when using centre pivots you’ll get a rectangle with rounded corners, this allows Craig to use more of the field’s potential and have less wasted land. The other interesting feature of Craig’s centre pivot system was that if it breaks down the pivot would automatically call his mobile phone to let him know something was wrong.

Classic Centre Pivot (Taken near Inverell NSW)

Classic Centre Pivot (Taken near Inverell NSW)

Leaving the centre pivot we walked over to Craig’s dam via the main homestead’s extensive and impressive gardens. The garden just seemed to keep stretching on as we wound our way through it, the sheer variety and volume of plants was just staggering. We left the garden simply stunned by its sheer size and by the thought that there was just one gardener who was able to maintain all of it.

The Swing Arm Centre Pivot

The Swing Arm Centre Pivot

Craig’s dam wasn’t as big as his neighbours but his was built first and was one of the first properties in the area to have a dam constructed and shares a lot of similarities with Mike’s dam. The dam was built before Craig took over as manager and like Mike’s dam it was built out of a need to increase the farms water security to ensure the survival of their high value crops. Craig’s dam is also filled by water that is gravity fed along a channel from the nearby river. Unlike Mike’s dam Craig’s was built onto to side of a hill instead of between two spurs meaning it took more time and cost more to build with about 1km of wall needing to be constructed.  While Craig’s dam may be smaller than  his neighbours it is more than capable of meeting his irrigation needs and has been able to easily see them through their longest water ban so far.

Craig's Dam

Craig’s Dam

Leaving the dam we walked back via another part of the garden and boarded the bus for Napier, this trip had been an incredible experience and it was great to see how things were done across the ditch.

NZ Irrigation – Part 3

The bus continued to motor on through the passing showers to the other side of the Heretaunga Plain, by now the plains area was distinctly a wine region with grape vines as far as the eye could see in every direction. We were here to see Mike Glasbourgh’s (spelling may be wrong) property in particular his dam and his arrangement with “Constellation Wines”.

Mike’s property was right on the edge of the Heretaunga Plain and was made up of both the plains country and the hills that surrounded it. On his property he ran sheep and cattle as well having some cropping and the vineyards that we’ll talk about later, but the main attraction to the property was his dam.

The need for the dam arose from Mike starting to grow more high value crops and need for more water security that came with. My understanding of way NZ irrigation works (I may be wrong) is that you can irrigate from the river as needed without a total limit on how much water you can use, however if the water level in the river drops below a certain point a water ban is called and no one can irrigate from the river. Mike initially looked at sinking a few bores on his property but in the end he decided that a dam would be the way to go.

The large dam (complete with water ski jumps) was built in a shallow gully between the spurs of two different hills, with the dam wall extending about 100m from spur to spur. The dam is gravity fed (without the aid of pump) from the river via channel that runs for a few kilometres, from the river to the dam. While at the time of construction it would have been simple enough to just bring in the bulldozers and set about building the wall Mike decided it had to be done properly, with a geological survey being undertaken first to make sure the site would be stable enough for the dam and that the wall wouldn’t leak.

Mike talking to us about the dam

Mike talking to us about the dam (Notice the ski jumps in the background)

While in size it is somewhat smaller than the dams you would find around Moree it is more than capable of meeting their needs for protection against droughts and frost, with the biggest test so far being a six week water ban last year that only caused the dam to drop to only two thirds its normal level.

The dam has led to some exciting opportunities for Mike including a deal with Constellation Wines who have leased a large area of his property to grow the grapes for their wines. One of things that attracted Constellation Wines to Mike’s property was the water security that it offered due to the dam; the other main attraction was his close proximity to their winery.

As we left the property we were given a demonstration of its frost protection system, like the other farms that we had visited they used water (from the dam) to prevent frost damage and had sprinklers along the vines. Due to a recent harvest there were a few geysers in the field from where the grape harvester had knocked the sprinkler heads off, but for me this only just added to the demonstration showing the amount of pressure in the system.

After watching the demonstration we were off to our fourth and final property just down the road to look at their mixed cattle and cropping property. Hopefully I’ll be able to get the fourth and final part of the tour up a bit quicker than I got this part up.

NZ Irrigation – Part 1

Yes that’s right I’m out of the country and on the road travelling New Zealand, the weather has been damp but the rain and the drizzle of Napier didn’t stop me going on Irrigation tour of some local farms yesterday.

We boarded the bus by Napier’s board walk and headed out to the Heretaunga Plain just outside Napier, on the way out to the first farm our guide explained a bit about the region’s history and the area’s geology. The Heretaunga Plain has a wide range of soil types from old deep coarse gravel to some new (Couple of hundred year old) highly friable soil.

Our first farm had an Apple orchid and Kiwi Fruit plantation and was run by Mark Ericsson whose family had been farming their block of land for the four generations. When we got off the bus we were straight into the kiwi fruit, which were just about ready for harvest. The vines were set up in a way to increase growth and yield, with this year’s crop being on the lower lateral vines and the following years vines growing up to a stake above the main vine. So when this year’s crop is harvested the vines that the fruit grew on are removed, the new vines are brought down from above to where the old ones were and then the new shoots start to grow up to the steak. This method allowed for only a slight loss in production when he recently changed varieties, he simply grafted the new variety onto the vine and grew it up over the old variety, then when he harvested the current crop he brought them down and continued on as normal.

The vines holding the current crop grow laterally while next seasons vines grow up towards the steak.

The vines holding the current crop grow laterally while next seasons vines grow up towards the steak.

The Kiwi fruit were irrigated from sprinkler system that ran along the base of the vines using bore water, however if a frost was to occur the sprinklers could be moved to the top of the vines and turned on to stop the frost setting in and affecting the plants. (Emphasis on frost mitigation would quickly become a common theme on the tour.) Using “Hydro Services” he is able to measure the vines water usage and the soils moisture profile, helping to reduce the amount of water used in irrigation. Another technique he uses to prevent water losses is that after he has planted a new set of vines he will use a watering schedule that encourages deep root growth so the vines can access water from deep down in the soil profile.

The sprinklers at ground level

The sprinklers at ground level

Pipe reaching up to the canopy that the sprinklers can be placed in for frost protection

Pipe reaching up to the canopy that the sprinklers can be placed in for frost protection

Mark tries to run the property as close to organic as he can in order to minimise inputs and therefore reduce costs but would never go fully certified organic as it would limit his market access to the European market. In order to achieve this all the cut down vines are mulched and then brushed up against the vines to act as mulch that retains water. He is also very mind full of compaction in his fields as it can hinder the soil’s ability to take up and hold water. There are also peacocks that roam the vines mainly for aesthetic purposes but they are also used to help keep the grubs at bay.

Old vines cut off and painted over

Old vines cut off and painted over

As I mentioned earlier Mark said he would never go organic as it would limit his market access to Europe, however his main market for his Kiwi fruit are Japan and South Korea as they prefer yellower colour and high dry matter content of this variety.

While the Kiwi Fruit and apple orchid was interesting and we were soon back on the bus and onto the next farm, so watch this space over the coming days as I write more about the tour.

 

 

Old Vines cut off and painted over

Old Vines cut off and painted over

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The sprinklers at ground level

The sprinklers at ground level

Peacocks for aesthetics and grub control

Peacocks for aesthetics and grub control

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They Used to Pay Me to Do That

This post has no pictures of the other day but just a few from the NT and plenty of memories.
Last Tuesday was one of the best days that I’ve had since leaving “Humbert River Station” in the Northern Territory to go to university.

While I work on a cotton farm there are cattle that run wide and live in the flood country, the farm doesn’t really do anything with except for about once a year when they try and muster them to cut out anything that might make a decent return. Recently the dry weather has brought them out of the flood country and into cotton where they graze in between the plants for the weed Nut Grass, they knock off a lot of the squares and bolls in the process.

We were just about to head home when the manager called us up and said to get the quad or the Yamaha Viking ATV, instead of taking one of the work vehicles I opted to use my Postie bike. I’ve been riding the Postie to work lately to cut down on my fuel bill as I’m able to reduce a $70 a week bill for the ute to $16 for the Postie, despite it having road tires and being servilely underpowered I thought it would be the better choice as it would be more manoeuvrable as well as easier to weave in and out of the scrub in the flood country.

And then I was back there my mind was in the NT, flying through the scrub chasing and turning the scrub bulls, micky’s and feral cows back to where they needed to be, the only differences were the distance was a lot shorter and there was no helicopter hovering above my head. Even the Postie’s lack of power didn’t kill the mood, in fact the only time it struggled was when the cattle ran up the wall and into a dry dam.

After we had pushed them back into the floodway, I said to the manager “You know they used to pay me to do that” he then said “I thought you enjoyed that”. With any luck we may end up mustering them between rounds of irrigation so they’ll no longer cause a problem in our cotton.

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Happy New Year

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

Unbelievably we’ve had both of these events off this year as we’re running out of water and had to stretch out irrigations. The farms dams were filled in the 2012 floods and helped put in a full crop in the 2012-13 season, unfortunately there hasn’t been significant rain since then and the dams are running. While the farm has six bores they only pump 25 mega litres a day in total which is enough to run a 100 bays at a time which is far from practical as 100 bays is a standard change in a field. While there is just enough water to see out this years crop the 2014-15 season will be very small unless there is a lot of rain between now and then.

The 40 + degree haven’t been helping the water shortage as the plants start to use more water as the days get hotter, the backpackers are also feeling the heat. Having come from Holland where it can get down to -10 this time of year the Aussie sun isn’t being kind to them, at about midday its like the hand break is pulled on and they slow down.

On the lighter side I’ve been working night shift during which keeps me out of the heat but makes the siphons harder to start as the cool air makes them stiff and they don’t bend over the bank, but they don’t burn your hands either. Night shift can get a bit tedious between changes so when I spotted a fox in a supply channel while driving around checking levels I thought I’d try and catch it. I end’d up catching it and got a photo before it bit my hand and got away.

Until next time kick of your next year with a bang.

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The Fox that Got Away