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Agtech Innovation Bootcamp contestants work to repurpose vacant land in SA’s Riverland

Vertical farming and propagating agave and aquaculture are just some of the ideas being presented by engineers to revitalize land vacated by farmers during the Millennium Drought.

The blocks in South Australia’s Riverland are owned by local growers and can be reconnected to Renmark Irrigation Trust drainage and irrigation.

Participants at the inaugural Agtech Innovation Bootcamp were challenged to find ways to activate the vacant land and increase biodiversity.

Other issues included innovating the picking process and making data more accessible.

Renmark Irrigation Trust legal and project manager James John said it was good to a diverse range of solutions offered.

“Those blocks have been vacant for some time,” he said.

“Now some are coming back online, but unfortunately some are blocks that are just sort of dust bowls that we would like to see reinstated as productive land.”

Mr John said he was interested in the idea of ​​introducing agave crops, which could be used to make tequila.

“With the boom we’ve had here with some of our distilleries and breweries, [it could be cool] to combine some sort of tequila production with tours,” he said.

Mr Dobson says more needs to be done to make land-based aquaculture more feasible.(Supplied: EcoSystem Farms)

Soil-less concept fertile ground

The first prize was awarded to Adelaide engineer Brendan Dobson, whose concept was a soil-less farming platform that integrated plants and fish.

“It’s kind of like an aquaculture and hydroponics and you kind of mesh the two together,” he said.

“But we’ve got some really big differences on the [agriculture] side of things — we grow in really large gravel.”

Lettuce leaves sprout through pebbles.
Mr Dobson’s farming solution allows produce to be grown in gravel.(Supplied: EcoSystem Farms)

Mr Dobson said the model could be used to grow anything from herbs to orchard trees.

“We use tractors to do harvesting and planting with a lot less labor than normal soils,” he said.

“We also constantly clean our water so that the fish waste provides nutrients for the plants and then the plants consistently clean the water for the fish.

“This means that we can upskill farmers and, with software, remote monitoring and management, we can pretty much have anyone run these sorts of systems and get access to agriculture on their land.”

A man wearing color transition glasses and a puffer jacket is standing in front of a metal wall hanging.
EcoSystem Farms founder Brendan Dobson hopes his sustainable farming solution can be trialled in more locations.(Supplied: Adelaide University)

Mr Dobson received $2,000 for his winning concept.

His project will also have six months of incubation in ThincLab, which includes access to a range of experts and resources.

Mr Dobson said participating in the competition had brought wider attention to his company, EcoSystem Farms.

“As a startup, the funds will help us to be able to do some more testing, probably in the Riverland area, to be able to have something that’s going to be viable for farmers in this region,” he said.

Four men stand together smiling in front of banners with an award.
Argentine engineers Gonzalo Canepa and Santigago Insaurralde teamed up with Loxton inventor Zane Sheffield.(Supplied: University of Adelaide)

Local innovator also rewarded

Renmark Irrigation Trust also awarded a $1,500 prize to engineers from indoor vertical farming company Eden Towers.

Loxton Agtech by Design founder Zane Sheffield, who worked with Argentinian engineers on the pitch, was offered the opportunity to work with the company in Adelaide.

Mr Sheffield said the event had been a great opportunity to collaborate with other innovators.

“I’ve had experience in coming up with vertical farming for indoors and households — little vending machine-size vertical farms, and also doing some work through university,” he said.

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