Urban farming creates solutions for sustainable produce
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;
Story

Urban farming creates solutions for sustainable produce

Issues/Sustainability , Issues/Technology , Stories/480
Sydney NSW, Australia
31st Jan 2019
Urban farming creates solutions for sustainable produce
Want to know how to turn discarded shipping containers into growing units for an urban farm? Ask SproutStack.

Tucked away between mechanics shops and suburban homes in Chatswood is an old industrial warehouse. The building's massive doors are open on a sunny day in January and tools, metal trays, and bags of soil are stacked in the corners. It's a far cry from endless expanses and rolling hills that you imagine when you think of most of the farms that grow Australia's produce.

But a single shipping container in this Chatswood warehouse is responsible for growing 8 tonnes of lettuce a year. The warehouse is home to SproutStack, a young agriculture technology company co-founded by Mick Harder. SproutStack is on a mission to establish new methods of growing produce for restaurants and grocery stores, and is an innovative example of the efficiency and quality of produce in urban farming systems.

Pictured: Sprout Stack urban farm.
Pictured: SproutStack urban farm.

SproutStack takes discarded shipping containers and turns them into growing units. As you enter their growing containers from the end, long rows down the length are stacked floor to ceiling with growing trays. On either side, trays packed full of individually potted plants are also stacked from the floor to the ceiling, arranged to optimally accommodate the height of growing a lettuce plant. These shipping containers are readily available and optimal for transportation. They are also spacious and come already insulated which make them ideal for converting to growing environments.

Mick Harder, co-founder and Head of Manufacturing at SproutStack cites a number of benefits of producing in urban environments as a way to combat the challenges of traditional farming.

"Space efficiency, there's next to no water use, no herbicides and no pesticides, and there's no seasonality. Just a completely controlled environment not exposed to any pollutants. So it's quite a clean way to grow." The produce, mainly lettuce and micro-greens, all gets tested for contaminants and doesn't even need to be washed before eating.

Pictured: SproutStack urban farm.
Pictured: SproutStack urban farm.

Australia has a strong agricultural sector, with a $3.5 billion dollar industry in vegetables alone. However, feeding fresh produce to urban populations is fraught with challenges. Almost 50% of fruit and vegetable produce goes to waste, largely because of inefficiency in the production and distribution supply chain.

SproutStack can install units to grow where their customers live and eat, so the inefficiency of transporting produce across the country is eliminated, as well as the carbon emissions byproducts of shipping. In addition to being environmentally friendly, this is also a competitive advantage for SproutStack because it allows them to provide products their traditional farming competitors cannot. Harder explains that for example, "cut micro-greens have quite a short life so they [traditional farms] are taking quite a while from the time they harvest to the time they get into the store. We're harvesting and the next morning its in the shop. So we can afford to use the more perishable greens and still provide a higher quality product."

The SproutStack production process in itself is incredibly resource efficient - the plants are watered by flooding each tier of trays one by one. This frequency is controlled based on the needs of the plant - and the water is recycled through the different tiers, meaning that only the water system is 100% efficient and the only water loss is the water consumed by the plant it needs to grow. The largest resource demand in the containers is not from water but from energy demand needed to keep the containers cool in the hot summer months. Keeping the containers at a healthy growing temperature requires cool air to circulate through the containers.

This contained style of growing is also notably drought-resistant and independent of the local climate, allowing for optimal production for any plant in any region. Stable food production that is not tied to weather events will be an important technological advance for securing food production on a warming planet, and SproutStack seems uniquely positioned to solve this challenge.

As with many technological advances, there are unintended side effects that need to be addressed. Harder speaks about their current biggest challenge: pollination. "There's no bees in the containers so pollination is a challenge. we're currently doing it by hand with a brush."

Other critics of urban farming cite loss of business for Australia's farmers but Mick explains why this is not the case at all. "It [urban farming] is never going to replace outdoor agriculture." The size and space restrictions of urban growing, especially in the shipping container method that SproutStack has created, cannot keep up with the size of the land needed to grow certain crops. For example, given current capabilities, wheat could not be grown at scale in a container. Nor could apples, which grow on taller trees.

But despite focusing solely on lettuce and micro-greens, Harder has seen an incredible demand for SproutStack's most popular product, a local medley salad mix. SproutStack partnered with local market Harris Farms to distribute their product; and they can't keep up with the current demand in their current warehouse. This bodes well for business at SproutStack, but also highlights the desire among local customers for fresh and sustainably produced veggies in urban areas. As SproutStack's business continues to grow, so too will the efficiency and quality of our food supply.

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