Excerpt: 'Sun Drops and Digital Tomatoes' by Michael Dulaney

Image from https://twitter.com/sundropfarms?lang=en


For as long as most locals could remember, Port Augusta had been a coal town. At least once a week the little black rocks would arrive on trains travelling south from the outback mines that fed the power plant on the mangrove tip of the Spencer Gulf. The hard blue desert sky would sparkle with carbon spewed out from its chimney, and the salt lakes below were filled with water passed through its turbines. When the locals returned from holiday, they would see the grubby scaffolding like a ship on the horizon and finally feel they were home. But when the power plant was shut down for good earlier this year, the residents were forced to ask difficult questions about what was next for Port Augusta. With its roots in electricity generation, it made sense to most people that renewable energy was the answer, especially since the area has an abundance of sunshine—300 days per year to be exact—and is often referred to as the premier solar resource in Australia. This is hardscrabble land tuned for extreme temperatures and decades of drought, covered by a saltbush pasture fit for robust animals like Dorper sheep but little else. So it was strange when dreamy scientists and mad European capitalists, operating under the trading name Sundrop Farms, began plotting on the fringes of town and building the future of agriculture in the shadow of the old power industry.

Few could have predicted their slice of desert Australia would one day host the world's first solar-thermal powered greenhouse, a gleaming mini-city on the saltpans turning sunlight and seawater into millions of ripened tomatoes. What started six years ago as a zero-energy, hand-built pet project that used wind and evaporation to grow a small conventional crop has become a high-tech hundred-million-dollar commercial venture now delivering twice-weekly to supermarkets across the country.

This one operation will eventually supply forty per cent of Cole's truss tomatoes (or, put another way, fifteen per cent of all the tomatoes in Australia) and it will do this without using pesticides, freshwater reserves or fossil fuel. It is powered by 24,000 parabolic mirrors that follow the sun and direct its energy towards the tip of a 127-metre solar thermal tower which glows like the Eye of Sauron when fully heated. Seawater pumped into the tower from the nearby Spencer Gulf is heated for several purposes: to climate control four vast greenhouses, power an on-site desalination plant and generate electricity for the site. The twenty-hectare growing space is filled with rows of nutrient troughs supporting the year-round growth of 440,000 hydroponic tomato plants. Pests and disease are kept in check because the plants are isolated from the surrounding ecosystem, and every variable—temperature, humidity, pH and nutrients—can be tightly measured and controlled. If any invaders happen to find their way inside, 'friendly' insects are periodically introduced to combat the nasty ones. When the project first started, bees were brought in every few months to pollinate the plants, but this is now done by human hands. If they weren't grown hydroponically, the tomatoes could be considered organic.

This hydroponic farm is a shiny beacon on the side of the highway, an embassy from the future that heralds the coming green economy. The investment group that committed one hundred million dollars to the project is looking to set up similar operations in Portugal and the USA, anticipating a world where tomatoes, cucumbers, capsicums, lettuce, berries and perhaps even fish could all one day be farmed using solar power and seawater. If Sundrop is indeed a preview of a new food system, it is a milestone for the development of a sustainable planet; one where more food is produced with far less impact on the environment and finite resources. Driving north towards Port Augusta now provokes a kind of speculative awe, especially in the moment of parallax just outside town when the Sundrop solar tower aligns with the coal plant's chimney, a little bit of symmetry between past and future meeting on the horizon.


Something often lost in the discussion of the Sundrop model is that its revolutionary promise for the planet does not necessarily guarantee a future with fairer jobs and fairer food. As with most correspondence from the frontiers of technology, mainstream reports about Sundrop have focussed on the wonders of capital and avoided a discussion of its potential effect on labour. A system where ninety per cent of Australia's tomatoes could conceivably be produced by just six farms will fundamentally change not just the possibilities for horticulture, but also the relationship of workers to their product. The recent history of Sundrop contains subtle reminders that even the most promising renewable projects are still rooted in the messy system of employee relations which define modern capitalism.

One such reminder occurred in February 2016, when a 29-year-old vandal from the Netherlands received a two-month suspended jail sentence for marking graffiti on a public memorial. He had landed in court shortly after going on a late 'nightbombing' run through Port Augusta, tagging "Scheme 015 never gives up" and "Skaffa" in black spray paint on corrugated fences, street signs and rusted utilities around town. But it was his tagging of a decommissioned Army tank at the Port Augusta RSL that really landed him in hot water. Violating this space of the war veterans—perhaps the only sacrosanct tradition remaining in secular Australia—brought the Dutch vandal to the attention of the local media, as well as the private 'rant and rave' Facebook groups which thrive on this sort of thing. Angry online mobs were soon dreaming up creative punishments and suggesting humiliations like public floggings and tar-and-feathers, with a running theme of having veterans impart unspecified (but presumably violent) lessons about "respect," such as the graffiti being scrubbed off with a cotton bud by the so-called artist while having "a sar-major (sic) screaming insults into his ear."

With their attention firmly focussed on revenge, the mob overlooked another of the Dutch vandal's tags, a biographical clue sprayed on a concrete bridge which read: "Fuch VDH/Sundrop!" It's the one piece that begins to explain how fragments of the Dutch graffiti scene became etched across a blank desert canvas sixteen thousand kilometres away in outback South Australia.


This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #34. Get your copy here.

Michael Dulaney is a writer and journalist based in South Australia. His work has been published by Griffith Review and The Monthly among others.