A farm in the South Australian desert that produces vegetables using just sun and seawater was officially launched Thursday. The farm — which uses no fossil fuel, pesticides, fertilizer, fresh water or even soil — is the result of six years of efforts by an international team to demonstrate what they believe is the future of farming.

Solar desalinization

Sundrop Farm is located in the hot, dry desert near the small seaport of Port Augusta. Temperatures of over 100 degrees are commonplace and rain is virtually non-existent. Instead of ground water, seawater is piped in from Spencer Gulf, nearly two miles away.

It is then treated at the farm’s solar-powered desalinization facility.

That water is used to feed the 49-acre farm’s 180,000 tomato plants and to soak cardboard liners outside the greenhouses to prevent the air inside from getting too hot.


Because the plants are indoors and the air is misted with seawater, there is no need for pesticides or genetically modified seeds. And since they are hydroponically grown in discarded coconut husks, there’s no need for soil or fertilizer.

All power for the farm is provided by 23,000 solar panels aimed at a 500-foot tower, which produces as much as 39 megawatts of power under ideal conditions. As a precaution, the farm is hooked up to the regional power grid, but Sundrop Farm CEO Philipp Saumweber says that “design improvements” will make that no longer a necessity in the near future.

“These closed production systems are very clever,” said Robert Park, a sustainable agriculture professor at the University of Sydney. “I believe that systems using renewable energy sources will become better and better and increase in the future, contributing even more of some of our foods.”

High initial cost

While this type of farm costs more to set up than a traditional farm or greenhouse at about $200 million, because it uses no fossil fuels, Saumweber says, it saves money in the long run.

And because it can operate anywhere — regardless of soil condition, freshwater supplies or temperatures — it can operate on cheaply acquired land.

Sundrop’s tomatoes are already available to consumers at Cole’s, a large Australian grocery chain. They also plan to add chili peppers and berries.

Exporting the idea

Sundrop is currently working on similar facilities in Tennessee, Portugal and another one in Australia, although the one in Tennessee would not require desalinization. That would, however, be a factor in proposed deals in Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Critics have pointed out that Australia has no problem growing enough tomatoes, but Sundrop points out the benefits of not using freshwater, soil, pesticides, GMO seeds, fossil fuels or otherwise arable land.

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