AU: Vertical thinking when it comes to growing

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.

"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 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. "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.

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.

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.

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