Whether you’re a modular or traditional farmer, there is no denying the impacts of our record low rainfall this year. Yes, our vertical farming systems are designed to withstand the impact of drought, but have you ever wondered how we got here?
Before Modular Farms, our director James Pateras was a 3rd generation farmer on his family’s broad acre vegetable farm, inevitably witnessing the devastating consequences of low rainfall nearly 19 years ago. After being encouraged to step away from traditional farming, James wanted to incorporate himself back into the farming industry – but this time a little differently. One university degree and a seven-year bank career later, James helped integrate Modular Farms here in Australia!
Here, James is sitting down to discuss the path he took to get from traditional farming with his dad to Modular Farming as a result of incontrollable environmental factors.
1. Before Modular Farms, what were the impacts of drought on your family farm?
In early 2000, I experienced the devastating impacts of drought on our family’s broad acre vegetable farm and I recall dad telling me ‘it was not the first time, and certainty won’t be the last’. This drought was hitting home hard as crop yields were down by 80% and our water allotment was non-existent, despite paying for the water we never received. To salvage the remaining crops, dad had to implement a number of water-saving measures.
2. How did the drought influence your transition from traditional farming to your passion for Modular farming?
It was a hard few years on dad and the family. My father encouraged us to look for better life experiences and broaden our knowledge.
It was a defining moment in my life.
Just finishing an economics degree, I decided this might be the time to leave the family operation and utilise my newly acquired degree. So that’s just what I did; I left a year later and went into the finance sector. I knew farming would always have a place in my life and decided after 7 years away that now was the time to immerse myself in farming again.
It was somewhat instilled in me at a young age that the farm was hard work and can be very unpredictable at times. Getting back into farming, I knew doing the same thing and expecting different results was not an option for me. Dad was always keen to innovate and try new things on our farm, but he couldn’t make it rain – so I think that’s where I got the passion to look at alternative growing systems such as indoor agriculture.
3. This year alone, what are the negative affects farmers are experiencing?
We are seeing record-low rainfall in some regions of Australia this year, but farmers have planted crops in hope that the summer rain will come. The impact is not only seen on large grazing and crop land, but it also impacts those in the broad acre vegetable sector as well.
Many of these farms operate on water allocations which means tight management of this resource is critical. Here in Brisbane, we know that the salad bowl (Lockyer Valley) relies on summer rain and if we don’t receive this rain, the price of vegetables will increase, therefore impacting the consumer as well.
This inconsistency in rain and the strain it places on the farmer and consumer is directly linked to how indoor, hyper-local farming could minimise these fluctuations and the reliance on water to secure the supply of food for consumers and businesses.
4. How has the demand for indoor, hyper-local farming systems increased?
We are seeing a lot of interest throughout Australia and NZ from new farmers or those wishing to supplement their income or add value to an existing business. There are major benefits in securing a supply of fresh leafy greens, especially if you operate a salad bar, catering company, or even as a wholesaler fulfilling customer orders. Buyers and retailers of fresh produce have been very vocal about food safety and security in recent months due to the drought. Due to needle contamination issues, we have also seen the strawberry market suffer for many months, greatly impacting the industry. It has made people think about how our food is handled and where it’s coming from.
5. What would you like to say to farmers who are reluctant to embrace new technology?
As we know, embracing new technology can be challenging, especially for 2nd or 3rd generation farmers. The resilience required to persevere through the bad times and benefit from the good times is a balancing act. We have already used 80% of the world’s fertile land and will need more than the remaining 20% to feed the world demand for food.
We would like to encourage traditional farmers to think about the way this technology can embrace existing businesses or create new ones. Changing the landscape of food supply and security is going to become even more pertinent over time; not to mention the need to reduce food waste and the cost of transport logistics with fuel prices at record highs. Farmers are smart, so when they understand our system, they see the potential and are generally excited about how we could empower a new generation of farmers and farming.
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