What do Melbourne’s Etihad Stadium and Rod Laver Arena as well as Lancaster Farming’s hydroponic tomato farm all have in common?
They all have a retractable roof and in the case of Lancaster Farming it is the first greenhouse with a retractable roof that produces hydroponically grown tomatoes in Australia.
The first stage of the three-stage project is now complete, costing $15 million, covering 5ha with 75000 plants and employing up to 50 staff.
‘‘It is highly labour-intensive but there is a lot higher yields. So there’s a trade-off,’’ Lancaster Farming general manager Colin Hudgson said.
The higher yields, and better quality fruit, can be attributed to the retractable roof, which helps the business sell to large supermarket chains in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
‘‘When it rains we close it and when it’s sunny we open it up,’’ Mr Hudgson said.
‘‘This allows us to protect the crop against weather events and also allows us to get natural sunlight into the crop.
‘‘A typical hot-house is located in a cold climate and energy is used to warm it up. Here we have a cold house in a hot climate and we are using nature to warm it up. It’s a lot more sustainable this way.
‘‘We have major supermarket customers. We have a lot better quality and size out of what we’ve done so far. This is the reason we’ve done it.’’
Another advantage of growing tomatoes hydroponically under cover is the ability to grow the fruit for more months of the year.
‘‘A normal outdoor season is January to April/May. We can grow from November to June/July,’’ Mr Hodgson said.
By having the option of an extended season, Mr Hodgson said it made employing locals easier.
‘‘Those who we employ are mostly locals and that’s our preference.
‘‘The beauty of this structure is we can offer 12-month employment rather than seasonal work.’’
Lancaster Farming is operated by LaManna Premier Group, which also operates Premier Mercuri Farming in the Goulburn Valley, and Queensland’s Innisfail Banana Farming Company.
On completion, the three-stage project will cost $50million, have 25ha of under-cover growing and the number of employees will grow to more than 200.