Sun and seawater: Secret recipe for mass tomato production

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Sundrop Farms founder Philipp Saumweber
Sundrop Farms founder Philipp Saumweber
A tomato farm that relies on the sun and seawater to produce more than 15,000 tonnes of fruit a year has been officially launched in South Australia.

Sundrop Farms’ sustainable facility in Port Augusta includes four climate-controlled greenhouses, each 5-hectares in area, and a desalination plant. It also features a concentrated solar power system comprised of a 127-metre tower and more than 23,000 mirrors to reflect the sun’s energy. 

The A$200m (US$151.9m) commercial facility is the first of its kind in the world, employing some 175 people. 

Sundrop Farms founder and chief executive Philipp Saumweber said the development, 300km north of Adelaide, would drive long-term, sustainable profits. 

With growing resource constraints our innovative model harnesses renewable inputs, such as seawater and sunlight, to de-couple food production from the finite inputs of freshwater, fossil fuels and land​,” he said. 

Sundrop Farms, which has offices in London and Adelaide, and farms in Australia, Portugal and America, has also revealed that it has secured a 10-year deal to supply Coles supermarkets with truss tomatoes nationally. 

Since June, it has been delivering tomatoes to supermarkets in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. Now up to eight trucks leave the facility daily to freight tomatoes to supermarkets across Australia. 

Founded in 2009, Sundrop Farms is a pioneer in sustainable agriculture, growing high-value fruits and vegetables using renewable inputs. 

Construction of the commercial facility began in March 2015 following a five-year pilot project in Port Augusta from 2009. 

Port Augusta’s proximity to seawater at the top of Spencer Gulf, coupled with its warm climate and abundant sunlight, make it an ideal location for the project. 

The commercial plant integrates solar power, electricity generation, fresh water conservation and production, climate control, and hydroponics to enable the year-round production at high yields. 

The 18-month project included construction of the four massive greenhouses, a 127-metre solar tower, a solar field of more than 23,000 mirrors, and storage for 115m litres of water. 

The solar tower consists of five shaft sections, each weighing more than 80 tonnes. To complete the tower, the biggest lift ever undertaken in Australia raised the 234-tonne solar receiver to its pinnacle. 

All of the mirrors were ready to concentrate the sun’s power on the solar tower in June. This produces steam to drive onsite processes, and heat to run the desalination unit to create 1m litres of fresh water a day. 

In 2014, global private equity firm KKR partnered with Sundrop Farms, investing more than A$100m (US$76m) to enable the expansion in Australia and abroad. 

The opening was attended by South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill, who said the project highlighted the state’s appetite for commercialising world leading technologies. 

 “This state-of-the-art development is a massive boost for Port Augusta and the Upper Spencer Gulf, creating almost 200 jobs and heralding the start of an exciting new industry for the region​,” he said. 

It is yet another example of a world-leading company making a long-term investment in this state and I look forward to seeing the wide-scale benefits the project will bring over coming years​.“ 

The South Australian government supported the project with a A$6m grant from the Regional Development Fund.

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