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PCA Conference 2023:

How vertical farming can play a major role in growing Australia's agricultural footprint

Despite Australia's record for being a leading food producer already, vertical farming can become an important piece of the nation's agriculture puzzle, according to a leading international agritech innovation company.

Speaking at the Protected Cropping Australia (PCA) conference in Brisbane, Chris Horne from Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS), based in the United Kingdom, says that the extreme weather, among other factors, makes the current farming environment challenging.

"I have heard many people say that we don't really need vertical farming in Australia," Mr Horne said. "We know Australia has one of the lowest populations per square kilometer of land in the world but one of the highest food production percentages. It also has plenty of sunshine, so you may think, 'why do we need the LEDs.' But we know agriculture and horticulture is not always easy here. I also hear all the time about labor issues, and water availability is another key problem. So there are many challenges, but the way I see it, there are many opportunities for Australia, which is already fantastic at selling many different forms of produce around the world. It can sell even more and even different types of crops. While vertical farming on its own is not the answer, it will be one of the jigsaw pieces alongside traditional glasshouse, polytunnels, and outdoor growing - but importantly not in competition with each other, complimenting each other."

IGS presented on pairing tradition with technology to grow Australia's future with Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) through two models; the traditional seed-to-harvest model and secondly a hybrid model using the IGS growth towers to produce young plants that are then transferred to glasshouses, polytunnels, or outdoor fields to speed up the growing process through to harvest.

The conference also heard from Pavlos Kalaitzoglou and Viviana Correa Galvis from Infarm, who presented on the automation of plant growth monitoring and recipe adjustment through a data-driven biofeedback system via video link from Europe. Infarm is an indoor farming company that brings vertical farming into the city to grow fresh local produce and believes it is important to share information, especially in the protected cropping industry.

"The trick is not only to have the data - but to know how to use it," Ms Correa Galvis said. "On this journey, we realize that it is not important that we keep this information to ourselves because we require that the people who are interested in supporting us know the needs that we have. We need to think about the science behind vertical farming, so if we don't put the information out there, there will be fewer scientists working on it."

It was not just vertical farming, but delegates also attended dedicated presentation sessions themed around Nutrition and Irrigation, Climate Energy and Renewals, IPDM and Biosecurity, People and Skills, Sustainability, and Waste and Pollination.

Dr. Chris Lehnert from the Queensland University of Technology detailed a project that he has been working on enabling robots to autonomously pollinate flowers in deformable, cluttered, and occluded agriculture environments. Katja Hogendoorn also spoke about mobile pollinizer units and whether they can help increase fruit sets in protected cropping.

There were also several grower panels throughout the day, one of those was hosted by Nicky Mann, and there was also some insights from George Jessett, Jack Mooney, Andrew Mcillwain, and Belinda Frentze. They were able to give attendees helpful information about how they built up their successful businesses and current trends in the industry.

This year's PCA Conference is the largest event that the Australian organization has hosted, with around 600 people registered and more than 200 growers, but there is also a trade show exhibition, with more than 90 companies showcasing their products and services to delegates. One of those was a Burro robot from Agri Automation, which offers a range of innovative agricultural solutions designed to help farmers improve productivity and efficiency.

Delegates will attend another day of presentations on Wednesday before the industry dinner, and then the four-day event will conclude with farm tours across the region on Thursday.