New Industry Growth Phase

Steven Carruthers

Steven Carruthers

The Hydroponics Farmers Federation conference, recently held at Club Mulwala Resort, New South Wales, heralded a new growth phase for the Australian protected cropping industry with the inclusion of an aquaponics position within its charter. As far as I am aware, this is a first by an Australian commercial grower organisation and signals a broadening of the industry.
Historically, aquaponicists generally come from an aquaculture pathway, with the emphasis on farming fish, and using the wastewater to grow plants to strip the water of nutrients and return clean water to the fish ponds. They are more likely to be a member of an aquaculture association where their knowledge base lies, rather than a grower organisation.

In the early days of commercial aquaponics development in Australia, I ogled at the market price of plate-size barramundi and the return to the grower, but from studies worldwide we now know the main income from a commercial aquaponic system comes from the plants.

The protected cropping industry is right to embrace this technology, which can value-add businesses and minimise the cost of fertilisers to grow produce that is all but organic by definition.

Today, aquaponics is emerging as a significant new sector of the greenhouse and hydroponics community globally, with many new commercial and research enterprises evaluating their contribution to enhancing integrated food production systems. Indeed, many countries have already established professional facilities to investigate and refine these integrated production systems. Surprisingly, Australia, with its wide range of freshwater species that can be farmed, lags behind the rest of the world in this exciting new field. More about this and other industry initiatives can be found in my conference report, Networking for Knowledge, in this issue.

‘Plant factory’ technology is another serious contender for commercial recognition by the protected cropping industry. Plant factories are not a new fad, but the development of LED grow lights is a game changer with many successful commercial systems now in operation in urban spaces around the world.

First developed to produce fodder for livestock, commercial plant factories are now proving popular with plant propagators and leafy green and herb producers in the mega cities of Asia, Europe and North America.  Perhaps the abundance of sunshine and space is why Australia lags behind the rest of the world in this technology, too. In this issue we chart the development and potential of Plant Factories in the first of a series of articles on this emerging technology.

The announcement to build a new $3.5 million world-class glasshouse R&D and training facility at the University of Western Sydney’s (UWS) Hawkesbury Campus, based on a Netherlands model, is welcome news for the Australian protected cropping industry. With a reliance on greenhouse horticulture training facilities on the other side of the world, the new UWS facility will fill a significant research and education gap in Australian horticulture. The UWS announcement is another indicator the protected cropping industry is entering a new growth phase. More information about the new facility can be found in our story, Innovation Under Glass, in this issue. Ω