Vertical thinking when it comes to growing – Farm Weekly


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PICTURE your farm being next door to the distribution centre of a major supermarket or neighbouring a key metropolitan farmer's market. That's the vision for the German-born innovative couple behind Western Australia's first commercial vertical farm, Christian Prokscha and Julia Prichodko, who founded Eden Towers. Based at Malaga, the couple has plans to expand the Perth farm to one or two sites, with two towers per site, each up to 12 metres high which would offer 3200 square metres of growing space on a 200m2 site. A 12m tower would house 144 large stainless steel trays, which hold plastic seedling trays with thousands of cells per tower. Not only does vertical farming take maximising space to another level, the set-up of Eden Towers means there is no need for pesticides, herbicides or fungicides - even those which can be used in organic farms - or traditional fertilisers and even soil. The area where the plants are kept is air-locked to keep pests and disease out.If disease does occur, which Mr Prokscha said was rare due to the farm's design, it is contained to one steel tray, which would then be thrown out. The produce, which currently includes leafy greens such as spinach, Asian greens, basil, kale, radish and micro herbs, are grown in a coconut medium (fibre) which has the ability to retain water very well. The couple said their farm was 'post-organic' - a new standard being discussed in the European agricultural industry to refer to processes that are better and beyond organic. Even though no chemicals are used, Mr Prokscha said the farm could not be classified as 'organic' as the produce was not grown in soil."Post-organic means the next level of organic - we don't have a tractor, we don't use any pesticides, even organic pesticides," Mr Prokscha said. "The plant is fully untouched - even the nutrient mix is not chemicals, it's a mineral nutrient mix."It's all about doing more with less. "If we can grow something by not using fertilisers and pesticides and without washing that into the soil, why not look at that? "And people here are willing to pay a little bit more for that product."Once the Perth expansion is underway, the pair plans to take Eden Towers interstate into Sydney and Melbourne and beyond that, overseas. "I want to make sure that we do something great in Australia first before we do something offshore, because offshore has a lot more risk with it," he said.But the main limitation in upscaling has been raising capital, although they have only been farming in Perth since March this year and already the local market has responded. "Getting into the market has been a challenge because people thought that produce being farmed indoors was weird, but then they tried it and liked it," Mr Prokscha said."I think now we have the market sorted - we have interest from a couple of wholesalers, IGA and we are going to open up our own online shop to sell direct to the consumer."They have also received interest from chefs and restaurants. So now they have focused a lot of their attention on capital raising. "While this is very capital intensive, from an operational perspective it is very lean compared to a traditional farm or greenhouse," Mr Prokscha said. "I think this is because, firstly it's still a new concept and people in Australia are more risk averse especially when it comes to start-ups - people love investing in traditional assets (shares, property, gold etc). "A lot of our interest has come from people into sustainability or outside of agriculture."So far they have invested close to $500,000 into the project, including travel, research and development, consulting services, assets and time and are seeking to raise an additional $3-$5 million. "Perth is the focus at the moment," Mr Prokscha said. By design the farm is free of pests and disease. It uses no traditional or organic chemicals or fertiliser."If it's one or two farms, it depends. "We would like one tower close to the city to cater to the Perth market so then the produce is incurring less food miles."By eliminating and controlling the challenges that traditional farmers face, such as pests, disease, weather, temperature and humidity, Mr Prokscha and Ms Prichodko are able to create the optimal growing conditions for their crops, partnering with Scotland-based Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS). They call it "the recipe" - the perfect combination of LED lighting, water, nutrients, humidity and temperature for each crop, which is developed through trial and error. Once they have the recipe, the farm becomes smarter and uses artificial intelligence to program the ideal growing conditions. The various LED lights are designed to mimic the sun rays, which are optimised based on what each crop requires, whether that be direct sunlight from 9am to 12pm, the lights can replicate that. And having such ideal and consistent growing conditions with no disease or pests is proved in the pudding, with each crop looking exceptionally healthy and full of flavour.Mr Prokscha said another reason for the produce looking and tasting so good was due to the fact that they're untouched until harvest. Even the water doesn't touch the leaves, it is taken up through the roots."Everytime you wash the produce it actually loses nutrition and flavour - this is also why the nutritional value is much higher and the flavour is more intense," he said. The labour required to maintain the farm is substantially reduced with robotics. "It depends how far we go," Mr Prokscha said. "We could spend another $250,000 for a machine to pick up the stainless steel trays and wash them, but I think we'll do that manually. "As we advance then we may invest in something like that. "So our plan at the moment will involve the tray being manually picked up and put on the conveyor belt, then the machine will fill it with the coconut medium, it will be moved along the conveyor belt and the seed is put in, then watered, then we'll (manually) pick it up and put it in the germination chamber, once ready we'll take it out of the germination chamber and put on the tray and the robot puts it in the right position. "For harvest, the robot will pick the tray up and drive it into the harvesting area and the harvester will harvest it - which is basically scissors that cut it off, then it goes into another area and is packaged by hand. "For the time being with the scale that we have, it doesn't make sense to invest in robotic packaging. "And for cleaning, the plastic trays will be washed automatically but the big stainless steel ones will be washed by hand - after every cycle everything is washed and sanitised." Ms Prichodko said although the farm would use less labour, it would require higher skilled labour to understand and operate the technology."While there is less physical labour, there's a lot of mental labour - everything needs to be scheduled and checked," she said. "The software will help but we need to understand how each plant grows to schedule the jobs properly so the technology is maximised. "There is a lot of checking that the technology is working correctly." The artificial intelligence will also allow for excellent traceability, as once the farm is more established, there will be a QR code for consumers to scan and see live into the farm. As the operation is based on sustainable principles, it is incredibly water efficient as all water is recycled. The biggest cost to the operation is electricity and the couple plans to have the farm run entirely on renewable energy, particularly solar. "In Perth it's a little difficult because there is not a lot of solar power going in and we do need a lot of power, so we are looking at micro grids - some might come from the normal generation and some we might buy on the tariff exchange and anywhere that we can put solar panels we will," Mr Prokscha said."Electricity is about 60 per cent of our cost and labour is about 20-25pc. "Maintenance is low because the only dirt is in the service area, the equipment doesn't rust because it's stainless steel and galvanised and LED lights don't fail easily." In terms of further diversifying their crop program as they expand, the couple sees potential in other crops. "Once the commercial farm is ready, we are going to look at specialty crops too - things like stevia as a sugar replacement, mint for things like toothpaste or thermal medicines - I think that is actually a bigger market for what we are doing," Mr Prokscha said. "People see vertical farms for leafy greens because that's where the tech works but we want to do something a bit different. "And another part we will look at is nursery crops, for example we can propagate really good strawberries, broccoli and asparagus - but we wouldn't grow it here because it's too expensive. "But we could give farmers the seedling to grow - that way they get a much better quality seedling. "The largest plant we will grow would be a chilli plant (50cm). "We also want to look at CBD oil (an extract from a cannabis plant)."And we are talking to the Peel Business Park Food Innovation Precinct to possibly look at alternative proteins with micro greens because we can turn them over so quickly."Farming wasn't always the plan for Mr Prokscha and Ms Prichodko, but sustainability always has been. Both have come from corporate careers, with Mr Prokscha having worked in corporate advisery and management consulting across the world and Ms Prichodko has a background in financial management, business reporting and performance improvement in various industries across small, medium and global businesses. In 2011 their employer at the time, Deloitte, sent them to Jakarta, Indonesia, to run a large project.After a few years Mr Prokscha started up his own business doing capital raising and worked on various projects, including solar projects. This led him to agriculture as he worked with a family business that produced a range of products including chicken, chicken feed and prawns and even down to seeds."For about two and a half years we were building a specific investment arm from the family office only looking at sustainable agriculture and aquaculture," he said. "We were getting into hydroponics there, as well as on-shore salmon farming and then COVID happened so a lot of the stuff we were building was put on hold.They have had the idea to build Eden Towers since 2019 and initially it was destined to start in Indonesia. "We were close to starting the construction in Indonesia and then COVID happened," he said. "Through COVID, Julia went back to Australia with the kids and I stayed in Asia but moved to Singapore. "I thought that COVID would last two to three months and then be over but that obviously didn't happen, then we started doing a project in Singapore and also started doing the branding of Eden Towers."Then COVID got much worse at the end of March/early April (2020) and I ended up moving back to Perth just before the full lockdown happened. "At first I was thinking I didn't really want to be here because I was worried that a lot of the business opportunities that we were doing were going to get delayed but then we decided to bring the technology here and actually disrupt an old industry."
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