Protected Cropping Australia Conference, Melbourne 2013

The 12th Protected Cropping Australia Conference and Trade Show recently held in Melbourne, was the most successful Australian industry conference that I have attended in terms of delegate numbers, exhibitors, content and organisation. Report by STEVEN CARRUTHERS

The 12th Protected Cropping Australia (PCA) Conference and Trade Show was held at the Pullman Melbourne Albert Park, Victoria, from 28-31 July 2013, and attracted 364 commercial growers and suppliers from Australia, NZ, Asia and Europe. The PCA is the peak Australian organisation for the commercial greenhouse, hydroponics and aquaponics industry, which is funded and managed by commercial growers and allied industries.

The conference program followed the usual format of a keynote address, presentations, workshops and farm tours; but the program was much more flexible than in previous years, allowing growers to attend ‘Tailored Tuesday’ for specialty workshops—cut flowers, fruit and vine crops, herbs and leafy greens, and aquaponics.

The biennial industry conference is always held in winter when grower workload is least; but even then, commercial food and flower production is a seven-day job and it was pleasing that many growers found the time for a day visit.

Prof. Jurgen Kleinwachter

Prof. Jurgen Kleinwachter

The keynote
The keynote address by Professor Jurgen Kleinwachter from Germany, was a fascinating look into the future with light and optic technology for commercial greenhouses. He spoke about developing technology that will capture light and separate its various components, such as radiant heat and colour spectrum; and refractors that will replace reflectors to concentrate light levels.

Prof. Kleinwachter is a physicist and inventor, who has dedicated himself to the research and application of solar technology for 30 years. His work in lightweight optics, thermo-dynamic and concentrator photovoltaic systems, has led to the development of systems with the potential to secure energy self-sufficiency for a wide range of applications, from small villages to commercial glasshouses.

“One greenhouse will power two,” he said.

Prof. Kleinwachter represents a new breed of scientists, best described as bio-physicists. A larger article on Prof. Kleinwachter’s ideas and technological innovations will appear in a future issue of Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses.

The Trade Show
At this year’s conference, I focused on the Trade Show while delegates attended presentations and workshops. That’s not to understate the quality of the presentations, which all received high ratings in the post-conference survey. My main focus was to gauge the health of the industry, and who better to talk to than leading industry suppliers during the quiet times.

AgVita_01There were 48 booths showcasing products and services from Australia, New Zealand, Israel, China and Holland. The large Dutch presence—five installation and system suppliers, and support personnel assisting Australian distributers—is a pointer to the current situation in Holland, which has seen industry shrinkage and wage cuts as a result of the European recession. With an economy better than most, Australia is perceived as a growth region, a place to develop new business.

Among Australian exhibitors, there was quiet optimism about the growth of the industry, although some admitted it has been a difficult period with a high dollar and a slowing economy. Some pointed to the “business uncertainty” as the nation crawls its way towards a Federal election. It’s a sentiment reflected across all industries.

My overall impression is that the Australian protected cropping industry is still growing, albeit more slowly that its estimated 4% year-to-year growth before the global financial crisis. There are new projects underway on the Virginia Plains in South Australia and elsewhere, and it was good to hear that Australian suppliers are in the mix for planned future projects. The Industry has also seen growth in new crops, including blackberries and blueberries.

Aquaponics workshops
On Tailored Tuesday for day-trippers, I particularly focused on the aquaponics workshops with expert speakers from Canada, Germany, New Zealand and Australia. The workshops were attended by 35 delegates, including growers, horticulture students and industry experts. The integration of aquaculture and hydroponics is an expanding technology as researchers develop better systems and management protocols. The workshops highlighted the good, bad and ugly of commercial aquaponics.

Dr Nick Savidov

Dr Nick Savidov

The workshops began with a presentation by Dr Nick Savidov from Alberta Ag & Rural Development Canada, who reported on commercial aquaponic developments in Canada.

Dr Savidov is best known for his two-year research project comparing greenhouse growing of plants under both aquaponic and inorganic hydroponic regimes. He described aquaponics as an example of a multi-trophic food production system where fish manure is microbially converted into plant nutrients, and plants remediate the water through absorption of minerals prior to returning the water to fish.

“Aquaponics represents an artificial ecosystem, where each component works synergistically to produce food with minimal water inputs and nutrient recycling, and does so with minimal environmental impact,” said Dr Savidov.”

“The technology has been gaining considerable public interest in recent years,” he added.

Dr Savidov described the progress made in the development of a fully automated commercial aquaponic system located in Brooks, Alberta, Canada.

“The results of this work—it is the only agricultural operation which produces no waste, liquid or solid,” noted Dr Savidov.

The major areas of improvement over earlier aquaponic systems are the solids capture system, bio-mineralisation processes and oxygen delivery system.
The Brook’s system has 84m2 of plant bed with floating rafts, and four fish tanks (total volume 20m3). This pilot-scale operation produces 3.7 tons of tilapia and 3.5 tons of basil annually. Trials were also conducted with substrate-grown long English cucumber, cluster tomatoes and bell peppers, with yields comparable with commercial hydroponic production. Dr Savidov noted the latter did not have the additional revenue stream from fish sales.

Dr Savidov also discussed the challenges facing commercial aquaponics. He cited negative public perception, lack of qualified people, lack of public awareness, outdated food safety regulations and organic certification, as major challenges for commercial aquaponics.

Dr Wilson Lennard

Dr Wilson Lennard

The second workshop was presented by Australian aquaponics expert Dr Wilson Lennard from Aquaponics Solutions (www.aquaponic.com.au/), who outlined the truths, realities and fallacies of aquaponics. He said that interest in aquaponics had accelerated in the last three years with more practitioners, associated business entities and individual “experts” appearing in the market. He spoke about the “Internet Effect”, the “New Industry Effect” and “Aqua-shysters”, and the effect of turnkey operators, which he described as rampant.

With most aquaponicists coming from a fish background, Dr Lennard focused on several key areas and placed them into a context that hydroponic growers could understand. He highlighted that there were hardly any aquaponic operations over 2000m2—most are under 1000m2 of plant growing area.

“There are few, if any, large-scale, financially viable models or businesses,” he noted.

“The vast majority of practitioners arise from the hobby sector of aquaponics.

“Few commercial practitioners come from either established hydroponics or recirculating fish farming,” he said.

Dr Lennard stated that most information available on aquaponics is based on tilapia, which is a banned fish in Australia. The main freshwater species farmed in Australia are Barramundi, Jade Perch, Murray Cod, Silver Perch, Goldern Perch, trout, catfish, eels, yabby and ornamental fish.

Dr Lennard said he would like to see comparative quality tests between aquaponic and hydroponic-grown produce. At first I thought this was a bridge too far, like trying to compare the quality and nutrition of produce grown in hydroponics to soil and organic produce, but during the panel discussion that followed at the end of the workshops, the experts highlighted there were some unique benefits in aquaponics produce that they would like to measure and quantify.

Paul van der Werf

Paul van der Werf

The third workshop was presented by Paul van der Werf, who gave a realistic perspective to the integration of aquaculture and hydroponics.

Mr van der Werf is President of the NSW Aquaculture Association and Director of the Earthen Group (www.earthangroup.com.au), an aquaculture consultancy service for integrated farming systems. He is also a research co-ordinator for Australian Aquatic Biological (www.aabio.com.au/), and a consultant to three other companies.

Mr van der Werf said that this year we will consume more food than we produce for the sixth time in 11 years. By 2050, consumers will be forced to reduce their protein intake by 75%, he added. He pointed to United Nations advice to “Invest in Aquaculture”.

It’s a little known fact that 50% of fish consumed worldwide is farmed. In Australia, the total value of the aquaculture industry is estimated at $950 million/year, and land-based freshwater fish farming represents $68.5 million/year or 7.2% of the total aquaculture production value.

“Wild catch fish flattened at 90 million tonne/year 10 years ago, and farmed fish has increased 10%/year for the past 20 years,” said Mr van der Werf.

He also discussed the capital cost breakdown for a recirculating aquaculture farm scenario, production returns and cash flow projections, nutrient make-up of waste water, capacity for plant production from an integrated farm scenario (plants and fish), and the potential for industry collaboration and integration. He said there were tough challenges moving forward.

Hogan Gleeson

Hogan Gleeson

The fourth workshop was presented by Hogan Gleeson, whose specialty is urban agriculture, embracing organic, permaculture, hydroponics and aquaponics production systems. Here, too, the information was fascinating. Mr Gleeson highlighted that we will need to feed 10 billion people by 2060. He said that the human population depends on five grains and five animals for protein, and pointed to developments in new foods. He also noted that one-third of all food is wasted. Mr Gleeson pointed to novel foods such as insects, frogs, jellyfish, cultured meat and synthesised sausage, GM foods, functional foods and a food ‘printer’, as future food developments.

Mr Gleeson also touched on ‘The Blue Economy’, a concept based on a book of the same name by Gunter Pauli. The book expresses the ultimate aim that a Blue Economy business model will shift society from scarcity to abundance “with what we have”, by tackling issues that cause environmental and related problems in new ways.

Wikipedia says the book aims to inspire entrepreneurs to adopt its insights, by demonstrating ways in which this can create economic benefits via job creation, reduced energy use, and more revenue streams from each step of the process, at the same time benefiting the communities involved. The Blue Economy is presented in 14 chapters, each of which investigates an aspect of the world’s economies and offers a series of innovations capable of making aspects of those economies sustainable.

Aquaponics Workshop panel - (LtoR) Dr Nick Savidov, Dr Wilson Lennard, Paul van der Werf, Dr Mike Nichols, Prof. Jurgen Kleinwachter, Hogan Gleeson and moderator Graeme Smith.

Aquaponics Workshop panel – (LtoR) Dr Nick Savidov, Dr Wilson Lennard, Paul van der Werf, Dr Mike Nichols, Prof. Jurgen Kleinwachter, Hogan Gleeson and moderator Graeme Smith.

The aquaponics workshop ended with a lively and witty panel discussion with industry experts.

Final remarks
The information presented in the keynote address and the aquaponics workshops was fascinating. In the years ahead, we are going to hear a lot more about new solar energy technology for commercial greenhouses, the Blue Economy, retail farming, urban roof-top greenhouses, and the development of new edible plants and synthetic foods, among many other new food production technologies.

September 2013 / Issue #135