Farming the Future

Australian Fresh Leaf Herbs basil crop.

Australian Fresh Leaf Herbs basil crop.

With growing concerns around the long-term sustainability of traditional farming processes and methodology, one Australian ‘agripreneur’ has introduced a new technology and environmentally friendly platform that is making food cultivation more accessible, attractive and efficient for urban communities.

By CHRISTINE BROWN-PAUL

In a past issue (PH&G Sept/Oct 2011, Issue 120), we looked at how Australian Fresh Leaf Herbs (AFLH) has expanded its operations to become a market leader in the supply of fresh herbs for the gourmet consumer market. AFLH is both a leading Australian garnish produce grower and distributor. Since inception, the company has grown exponentially with year-on-year growth with success attributed to its focus on driving innovation in all areas of the business, including incorporating innovative technology within the business process.

According to Australian Fresh Leaf Herbs Managing Director and Australian Young Farmer of the Year (2011), Jan Vydra, ALFH is dedicated to improving horticulture practices and is an advocate for the horticulture industry.

Jan Vydra, Managing Director of Australian Fresh Leaf Herbs (AFLH).

Jan Vydra, Managing Director of Australian Fresh Leaf Herbs (AFLH).

“The smooth operation of the business is ensured with a focus on finance, business development and marketing in addition to upholding strong relationships with suppliers to provide a reliable supply to consumers,” says Jan who runs the company with William Pham.

Future proofing agriculture
Recently, AFLH teamed with new agribusiness company, E Agri Co. to implement a new turnkey system for growing leafy greens and herbs across its operations.

E Agri has developed an innovative new technology and environmentally focused platform aimed at making food and horticulture production more accessible, attractive and efficient for urban communities.

E Agri Co. has primarily evolved from the relationship developed between AFLH and Envest Group (ENV), a private investment company with operations in Australia, Hong Kong and Beijing. The diverse team behind E Agri Co. is made up of industry leaders from across agriculture, education, technology, and sustainability. Chaired by former CEO of Federated Farmers of NZ (1997–2005) Tony St Clair, they have joined forces to launch E Agri’s new method of farming nationally and subsequently abroad.

E Agri Co. also draws on the experience and expertise of environmental expert Rob Gell, better known as a weather presenter for National Nine News and later, Seven News.

“Our objective is to enable people to grow fresh, organic food in city environments and encourage better utilisation of unconventional but potentially valuable production areas such as factory rooftops for farming,” he said.

“We are also focused on providing the safest, highest quality food solutions that minimise environmental and carbon cost impacts through ‘food miles’, while allowing consumers to have access to the fresh food from their local environment, year round, regardless of climate and free of pollutants.”

Mr Rob Gell (L) and Mr Jan Vydra—part of E Agri Co’s management team.

Mr Rob Gell (L) and Mr Jan Vydra—part of E Agri Co’s management team.

According to Rob Gell, who has more than 20 years’ experience as an environmental consultant, the farming solution offered by E Agri Co. is a positive step in the right direction.

“With natural resources becoming scarce, efforts to produce more efficiently and profitably are in high-demand,” he says.

“Through commercially proven, hydroponic and sustainable horticulture systems, we are now in a position to be able to deliver new turnkey solutions that can generate a significantly lower cost, higher yielding crop per square metre of land than can be achieved with either traditional horticulture or conventional hydroponic approaches.

“We believe the types of technological advancements being developed by E Agri will help cement Australia’s position as a provider and innovator of sustainably produced, high-quality food globally,” Rob says.

Profitable partnership
E Agri aims to deliver systems to grow fresh, organic food in a city environment.

Through commercially proven, hydroponic and sustainable horticulture systems, E Agri provides new turnkey solutions to generate a low cost, high yield crop per square metre of land footprint than can be achieved with either traditional horticulture or conventional hydroponic approaches.

Developed in its state-of-the-art R&D hydroponic facilities, E Agri provides innovative and sustainable growing solutions that minimises the carbon impact and ‘food miles’ while allowing consumers to have the freshest vegetables and herbs in their local environment, year round, regardless of climate and free of pollutants.

“By focusing on systems for production of sustainably grown food, we can provide healthy, clean, fresh produce to our global community,” Jan Vydra says.

The four enterprises that have joined forces to help put the pieces together for E Agri have 300 years of combined experience, covering horticulture growing practices from seedlings through to logistics and delivery.

Having scoured the earth for unique expertise and combining their own skills and embedded intellectual property, the team has developed key features for the system, including:

• Low energy consumption through the use of waste and solar energy and system analysis

• Low water usage through closed loop system, water capture and purification

• Vertical cropping system that generates a higher net yield per square metre than other systems while maintaining effective light

• Packaging, which reduces waste

• Logistics, which maintains fresh produce.

AFLH went from producing 2000 units to more than 100,000 units a week.

AFLH went from producing 2000 units to more than 100,000 units a week.

According to Australian Fresh Leaf Herbs’ Jan Vydra, E Agri’s technology has helped AFLH to grow the business over the past four years. AFLH went from producing 2000 units to more than 100,000 units a week using the hydroponic, cloud-based system.
AFLH is the first licensee of the facility and will expand its operations threefold with sites in Victoria, Northern NSW and Perth.

“The E Agri Co. model will utilise and draw on the proven practices and cloud technology that has been at the core of AFLH’s success,” Jan says.

“Australian Fresh Leaf Herbs is consolidating its three sites into one state-of-the-art facility that will streamline production through AFLH’s experience.

“Utilising new technology, including cloud computing, we have been able to maximise resources and conserve water and energy through smart phone and tablet devices,” he says.

“The software assists with everything from where we plant and monitoring water levels through to documenting the quality of the produce from the moment it leaves the farm gate to the time it lands at the retailer distribution centre,” he says.

“Through E Agri we have been able to generate higher yields from available land, minimise environmental impact and run a profitable business from start up in 2008,” he says.

Australian Fresh Leaf Herbs current growing model.

Australian Fresh Leaf Herbs current growing model.

Benefits to growers
According to Jan Vydra, the new system offers many benefits to growers, including:

• Controlled and predictable crop productions

• A farming system that will transparently connect customers to the product being grown

• Ensuring a greater return per square metre yield

• Turnkey solution that is easy to implement

• More effective use of resources including water and fertilisers

• A lightweight growing system that will provide growers with the option of moving closer to urban areas, which would in turn reduce the freight cost and ease employment sourcing faced by farmers in rural areas

• Environmentally friendly food production

• Year-round production.

Unlike competitors promising high-tech, new age solutions and infrastructure, E Agri says that it can point to proven success through its collaboration with partner Australian Fresh Leaf Herbs.
So what about sustainability?

“There are countless ways the system is sustainable, which are made possible through the unique and considered high-tech, innovative growing system,” Jan Vydra says.

“Traditional farmers waste a lot of water during the irrigation process—AFLH has proven that in the last three years it has saved just under half a billion litres of water across its basil production compared to if it had planted in the paddock and presented similar yields.

“Sustainability is at the forefront of everything that E Agri Co. is working to achieve and the new greenhouse structure will be designed to store summer heat and re-use this surplus heat in the wintertime,” Jan says.

E Agri Co. will implement a solar and bio-digester to offset the site’s energy requirements.

“Vertical cropping implementation will consolidate the square metre footprint, allowing less space be used to produce large crops,” Jan says.

“Through the controlled environment offered by the model, growers have the ability to produce 365 days of local production, therefore bringing food closer to consumers and reducing costly and polluted freight methods.”

About the author
Christine Brown-Paul is a Sydney-based journalist and a regular contributor to PH&G, with a special interest in the environment and sustainable technology.  Ω

January 2015 / Issue 151


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