Farmers are predicting a Canadian super house will be a game changer for Australian horticulture, giving growers control over the weather on a scale and at a cost they have never had before.
At $1.4 million to cover each square metre, farmers who are protecting their crops with Cravo houses say it is a “necessary investment”.
The house has climate-controlled retractable roof panels and walls which shield vulnerable crops from volatile and destructive weather, or open them up to sun and rain.
Bundaberg agronomist Jack Millbank said crop protection could now be measured in hectares rather than square metres, with the houses providing glass house type protection at nearly half the price.
“I think this is going to be a watershed in the high-value horticultural market, in that suddenly this is not a cost, it’s a necessary investment,” he said.
“It gets away from all the heartache of, ‘I have spent so much on this crop and now I’ve lost it all’.
“I’m a firm believer this will be the norm in five years’ time.”
Million-dollar structure put to the test
The structures were originally for small high-value operations like nurseries, but recent advances made them cheaper, making it feasible for larger-scale growers to cover whole paddocks or orchards.
Mr Millbank said a Cravo house turned around the financial fortunes of one of his big Bundaberg clients who was preparing to quit the region after five years of crop-destroying weather.
Daniel Scavo spent $3 million covering a paddock of roma tomatoes and capsicums. (ABC Landline: Pip Courtney)
“We just had failure after failure, we were out of the business,” Young Sang and Co’s Daniel Scavo said.
“We’d lost three consecutive roma tomato crops in a row, our yield numbers were pathetic.”
After seeing a Cravo house in Mexico, Mr Scavo spent $3 million covering a 4.3 hectare paddock of roma tomatoes and capsicums.
The day before its official opening 18 months ago, the house passed its first test when Bundaberg was hit with the worst storm in 50 years.
“We had four inches of rain in 20 minutes, over 100-kilometre winds and a hail storm. We lost 60 per cent of our field production in 15 minutes,” he said.
“But the house did exactly what it was built to do, it shut up shop and it protected itself, and we were lucky enough to still do a roma crop throughout the next three or four months.”
It was a lucrative time for the Scavo’s as the widespread storms caused a tomato shortage in Queensland and prices tripled.
A Cravo house protected this roma tomato crop during one of Bundaberg’s worst storms. (ABC Landline: Pip Courtney)
Increased yields, less water and sprays
Mr Millbank said the house was paying itself off with a big increase in yield and a 70 per cent reduction in water use and sprays.
“We are shooting for 40,000 cases for the next crop which is close to double what we get in the field.”
The percentage of first grade blemish-free fruit has exceeded expectations.
“Yesterday we had a 97 per cent pack out which you’d never be able to achieve on this scale outdoors.”
Mr Scavo said for the first time he could now guarantee supply, and plans to quadruple the area of land under cover.
Tassie’s cherry growers jump on the bandwagon
While Queensland producers were the first to use the houses, growers as far south as Tasmania are now putting them up.
The new $2.5 million house will protect four hectares of cherries from frost, hail rain and humidity.
“It could nearly pay for itself in a year, certainly in two years of poor crops we could get our money back, but year on year we are going to get improved pack outs so that’s going to contribute to repaying us every year,” he said.
“It takes the risk out of climate change and it will open the opportunity to produce some new crops in places where they have not been produced before.
“I think it will spread everywhere. In time it will be the only way to go in the future.”
Watch Cravo House on Landline, Sunday at noon on ABCTV.