STUDY TOUR: Nuffiled scholar Ross Pirrone shares insight on the potential of greenhouse farming. Picture: ContributedThe work of three young farming brothers could be the catalyst for creating a year-round season for horticulture in north Queensland.
The eldest Pirrone brother, 28-year-old Ross, is fresh back from writing his Nuffield Scholarship report on international protected growing systems, however, alongside siblings Josh, 27, and Chris, 26, the family has been making tracks in this field for years.
Currently, the Pirrones have a 2000-square metre greenhouse growing lebanese cucumbers in a trial at their Ayr farm — they have secured customers and are having success.
In the past they have planted, and collected data on, 32 varieties of tomatoes, eight of cucumbers, eight of eggplant and 15 types of capsicum.
Ross said fellow farmers in the Burdekin district thought the indoor-cropping venture was crazy, and were “waiting to see if we go broke”.
He joked that was a “good sign” and brushed off the criticism.
“It stacks up,” he said simply.
“This is what the market wants. It can lead to a 12-month supply.
“Right now, our season stops when it gets too hot — this is a game changer really.”
When the Rural Weekly caught up with Ross he was about to start night shift in a coal mine. He is a qualified engine builder and is currently using that skill to cash in on the resource boom.
His family is quick to jump on opportunities when they arise, and over the past six years they have transformed their cane farm into a mixed-enterprise operation.
“We have diversified away from sugar and have tried lots of different crops. We have done beans, rice and have cattle,” he said.
“We will still do that, in rotation, but we are now focusing more on horticulture.”
The greenhouse trial was already under way when Ross won his Nuffield Scholarship in 2016.
He travelled the world in 2017, visiting Mexico, Israel, Japan, the United States and the Netherlands.
His report provides a clear overview of different approaches to protected cropping, and the advantages and disadvantages of these systems.
“For any tropical indoor protected cropping system, three core features are most critical,” Mr Pirrone said.
“Firstly, the structure itself is crucial. It must be sturdy enough to protect crops from heat, while remaining flexible enough to withstand severe weather events.”
Ross said cyclone-proof greenhouses were possible, to an extent.
“Up to a Category 3 cyclone it is possible,” he said.
“There is a point, for some greenhouses, where you have to open them up to let the wind through. Doing this could damage the crop, so you could lose a crop but not the structure.”
The other key features were the growing medium, be it soil or hydroponic, and irrigation methods.
The report details how a strategically selected and designed protection structure can extend the growing season for certain produce.
“In Culiacan, Mexico, I was able to compare four main crops (capsicum, cucumber, eggplant and tomatoes) across various housing structures,” he said.
“When I visited, the traditional growing season was winding down, and crop quality was nearly unviable in most systems except for the retractable roof system.
“Crops under the retractable roof were still performing exceedingly well.
“While it is one of the more expensive systems to install, the benefits from weather and insect protection, and an extended growing season, were compelling and provided a real return on investment.”
Ross described learning the ropes of greenhouse farming as a challenge, particularly because available information in Australia was from vastly different growing regions to north Queensland.
“I think a saviour for us was that we came into this from a sugar background, not a horticulture background, so we didn’t have any preconceived ideas,” he said.
“All the industry standards for protected cropping, when it comes to the southern (Australian) techniques and perimeters, you need to chuck all of that out of the window.
“We had to start again, it’s totally different up here.”
Ross said the main barrier stopping northern Australian’s near billion-dollar fruit and vegetable industry jumping on board with protective cropping was cost.
So far, his family has invested about $250,000.
He estimates the set-up of a commercially viable system to be about $4—5 million. However, he shrugged off that government incentives were the answer.
“Again, if it stacks up it stacks up,” he said.
“Government support would be helpful to kick the ball along, but at the same time, private enterprise will find a way.”
A collaborative approach was essential, he said.
“Open consultation and trialling is needed to minimise failure risk on a large scale.
“Farm to farm collaboration and a sharing of research data and resources will create an efficient way to fast-track the development of chosen protected technologies, and increase the likelihood of success.
“Although completely unique, and tailored to our crop and local conditions, our research has paved the way and enabled us to show other growers and customers that the tropical north can offer affordable, high-volume production of fruit and vegetables on a consistent, year-round basis.
“This is extremely exciting for us, and bodes well for the broader northern horticultural industry as well.”
In his study, Ross examined an Israeli greenhouse working well in a desert and perused over high-tech soil-less Japanese inventions.
But, the biggest thing he learnt while abroad was that the Australian industry needed to be proactive.
“You hear everyone banging on about how good and clean Australian agriculture is, and I agree,” he said.
“But, what I learnt was the rest of the world, in a lot of aspects, is better.
“Maybe we are in a sort of bubble here. I think we need to change things drastically otherwise we will get left behind.”
Mr Pirrone’s research was funded by the Hort Innovation Leadership Fund and the Sylvia and Charles Viertel Charitable Foundation