The devastation caused by recent cyclones has all too graphically illustrated the need for New Zealand to start seriously considering alternative options for horticulture.
The government has made a start by offering $3.53m to support a four-year programme with NZ’s first commercial vertical farm, Greengrower at Waikato’s Innovation Park in Hamilton.
Leafy greens, such as lettuce, spinach and herbs, are grown in trays and in tunnels, receiving optimal sunlight, water and humidity to ensure maximum growth rates and efficiency. Plants can reach maturity in half the time of those grown outside.
The Hamilton facility uses 1% of the water used in outdoor farming, without the runoff or leaching from an outdoor farming system.
The weather gods are taken out of the equation and vegetables, once considered seasonal, can be grown all year round.
Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor insists vertical farming will complement, rather than replace existing outdoor food productions systems.
He is right. Traditional growers working the land are not going anywhere, anytime soon.
But when you consider the impact Cyclone Gabrielle has had in the upper North Island – crop and infrastructure damage and fertile topsoil washed away – viable alternatives are necessary if NZ is to maintain its place as a food producer.
Greengrower started commercial production late last year with one tunnel. The site is currently producing about 4000 bags of leafy green vegetables a day.
Two other tunnels are expected to be completed this year enabling the company to deliver the equivalent production of a 150ha farm.
“If you’re getting the equivalent of production from 150ha of land in a building like this, you can very quickly go through the calculations and think that this can be a pretty smart and sustainable investment,” O’Connor said.
Those behind the initiative say, while they are a small part of the food production industry, they could help alleviate supply and demand price fluctuations for the public.
While new to NZ, vertical farming is well recognised internationally. The ‘world’s largest vertical farm’ is in Dubai and set to produce 900 tonnes of leafy greens annually. The more than 36,000 sq m facility is located near Al Maktoum International Airport.
Expert says the worldwide shortages of water, land and energy, combined with increasing fears about the global food shortage and climate change, means vertical farming increasingly fits the bill.
Vertical farms do no require large amounts of land, can be established in areas close to markets and consumers, reducing emissions from transportation and distribution costs.
But, they don’t come cheap.
The $3.53m government funding for Greengrower comes on top of the $5.3m already invested by the business and its shareholders.
However, if it means NZ can produce fresh, affordable vegetables for everyone, then it will be money well spent.