Shipping container houses Peter’s vertical pasture

IN the centre of Hobart is a farm no larger than a soccer field that reliably produces a range of lettuces and herbs all year round, immune from pests, the heaviest rainfalls of spring and winter or the hottest of the searing summer sun.

How this is possible, how the farm isn’t easily spotted from the street, or how it even remains hidden from satellite images is all part of what makes Peter Handy’s Vertical Pastures such a special operation.

An unassuming shipping container hides the headquarters, laboratory and fields of the Vertical Pasture’s system. Inside this 40-foot container sits likely the most sophisticated hydroponics farm system you’ll see in the centre of the capital city.

A handful of shelves packed with green that stretch floor-to-ceiling run most of the length of the container, each attached to a track that, with a turn of a crank, can shift from left to right, not dissimilar to a shifting shelf in a library. Opposite the sprouting plants are a number of UV emitting LED panels which provide the much-needed light for the plants to grow, and above, a drip-feeding irrigation system that sustains them with nutrient-rich water.

From a computer, Peter can control the intricate measures that help grow the perfect plant – from the temperature, humidity, the irrigation water that adjusts pH and nutrient levels and even the colour of the UV lights. This level of control is something Peter has come to bask in after unsuccessfully experimenting with a number of different farm operating styles in an attempt to balance his busy life schedule.

“I’d been a soil-based farmer before, but it was quite difficult to operate alongside the full-time job I had, the full-time job my wife had, as well as our two children,” Peter said.

“I was getting sick and tired of my fences breaking, waking up in the morning and seeing my crops decimated by wallabies, things like frosts, erosion or insects coming along and wrecking a crop. “Between fertiliser, fencing, machinery and time, it had also become quite financially draining.”

It was in search of a different approach to farming, which included trials with aquaponics, that Peter came across Freight Farms, a company based in Boston who sold ‘controlled environment hydroponic vertical growing units’.

Now, Peter grows his seedlings in trays within the container, before they are simply plucked from their sprouting tray and inserted into walls: a coarse foam keeps the plant in place on the vertical wall, and a wicking fabric provides a conduit for the nutrient-rich water to reach the roots. “With this method we grow six different types of lettuces.

We grow herbs like basil, parsley and coriander for restaurants and we could grow leafy greens, flowers, strawberries or tomatoes with a tweak to the system,” Peter said.

“People are pretty quick to say this is what farms will look like in the future, but there are obviously limitations to this type of growing. “At this time and with the technology we have available to us now, we’re in a position to grow certain types of foods, but things like root vegetables will require something a bit different going forward.”

As for the expansion the inner-city farm, Peter believes it’s as simple as adding another container on top. “The beauty is I’m able to expand in a predictable way, once the water and electricity is established to the site, it’s a case of dropping another container besides, or on top and setting up however works best.

“There’s something to be said about being able to hand deliver produce to chefs in Hobart restaurants, knowing it’s been grown without pesticides or herbicides, only a few hundred meters away.”