As a farmer, your daily challenge is to provide ever-increasing yields and the best quality produce for your customers that results in the most profitable harvest. As you strive to achieve these goals, you might also be wondering how all this can be possible whilst also doing your part in protecting the environment. Introducing, protected cropping – an innovative farming method which reduces pesticides and helps to increase yield. It can help farmers optimise their operations while making sure they are protecting our planet! In this post, we'll explore how protected cropping works, its advantages over traditional methods of farming and why it's a great option for any sustainable-minded farmers out there.
Protected cropping is used by farmers to achieve a more sustainable cultivation solution than open-field growing methods. In simple terms, it is the practice of growing crops in enclosed, or semi-enclosed, structures. This allows farmers to better control the growing climate such as temperature, humidity, water and soil conditions. It can also allow farmers to grow crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers and strawberries hydroponically.
Protected cultivation methods can take a variety of forms such as high polytunnels (like our GROWTunnels), greenhouses, or netting spanning wide areas. The controlled environment allows fruit, vegetables and flora to be cultivated and grow without fear of threats like pests, extreme weather damage and disease. Other benefits include improved water usage and an extended growing season. The protected cropping industry is growing rapidly in Australia, with farmers turning more and more towards this innovative and sustainable approach to ensure their long term success.
For many farmers, protected cropping provides an innovative way to increase crop yields and profits, while reducing the requirement for external inputs, such as pesticides, which benefits both farmers' bottom-line and consumers’ health. Fruits and vegetables grown without the use of pesticides have been shown to have ‘higher levels of health-promoting phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals’.
From a global perspective, protected cropping can be part of the solution to limiting global warming. As protected cropping reduces the requirement for pesticide usage, this avoids the very significant carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide greenhouse gas emissions involved in manufacturing, transporting and spreading nitrogen fertiliser and pesticides, and circumvents the need for the powerful ozone-destroying chemical, methyl bromide.
Furthermore, by sequestering carbon back into the soil, thanks to the covered structures, protected cropping prevents carbon from escaping into the atmosphere.
2022 saw both farmers and consumers feel the effects of extreme weather conditions, sky-rocketing lettuce and other fresh produce prices. Whether it be fire, flood or drought, these extreme weather conditions are seemingly more and more commonplace. Protected cropping is a great solution for agriculture in Australia to combat the effects of climate change, reduce pesticides and their effect on the environment, all whilst providing sustainable, profitable agricultural systems that continue to deliver fresh, healthy produce to consumers.
Crop protection using framed structures allow you to grow a variety of crops, with different sizes and shapes to suit your specific needs! High polytunnels, caterpillar tunnels, greenhouses, and shade houses all provide their own unique benefits to the grower. Let’s explore the differences between them.
Growing in high polytunnels, such as our GROWTunnels, is our preferred method for commercial endeavours. The height and width provide enough space to allow farm machinery inside the tunnel, creating more efficient farming practices. Polytunnels can be optimised to grow in raised beds, hydroponically, in pots, or directly into the soil – giving you plenty of options to work with.
The solarweave cover is a cost-effective material that can withstand the elements, and provide a more controlled environment inside the tunnel. Shade nets can be assembled within the tunnel, or mounted externally, to provide extra cooling during peak times of harsh sun and warm weather.
Our GROWTunnels also come with roll-up sidewalls, and optional electric fans, to provide extra cooling functionality. Being able to control the internal tunnel environment makes high tunnels especially good for subtropical areas of Australia, such as northern NSW and Queensland, that can reach extremely high temperatures throughout Summer. By utilising polytunnels, farmers in these areas are able to extend their growing season and protect their crops from the elements.
Caterpillar tunnels can be made of similar materials to a polytunnel, and provide some protection from the wind and rain. However, due to their exposed ends, they provide limited protection from pests and don’t offer the benefits of height that high tunnels do. Whilst okay for smaller operations, or backyard gardens, the limited height can make harvesting harder, and limits the variety of crops that can be grown within the crop structure. If you’re looking to grow smaller crops such as lettuces, tomatoes or in-ground crops, caterpillar tunnels can be helpful in protecting your crops from harsh frost or too much sun. Alternatively, if you’re looking to grow tall-growing plants such as tomatoes, cucumbers, or grow on a large scale, a GROWTunnel is your best option.
Although lovely looking structures for a backyard english-style garden, greenhouses aren’t the most practical solution on a large-scale, due to their high cost, making them economically impractical for the majority of farmers. Greenhouses provide some protection from pests and diseases, whilst providing warmth and humidity to plants, making them useful for small-scale gardens in colder climates. However, unless hi-tech, they can often lack the temperature controlling abilities of a polytunnel, making them less suitable as you venture north into the Australian subtropics. A more suitable alternative is a mini-style polytunnel, such as our Backyarder.
In warmer climates, shadehouses are often used to protect crops from the harsh summer sun, providing high quality cooling and air movement - perfect for high yielding crops! They will not however protect your crops from insects and pests, windborne diseases and extremely heavy rain or wind. Like caterpillar tunnels, shadehouses are often smaller in height, therefore limiting the commercial growing capabilities within them. If you’re looking to reduce your pesticide usage, or better protect your crops from pests, you might opt for one of our Mini-Commercial or Commercial GROWTunnel, which have retractable shade nets mounted above them, or hang shade cloth within our smaller Rural or Rural Pro GROWTunnels.
When exploring solutions for today’s agricultural challenges in Australia, it is evident that a protected cropping strategy is a much-needed solution. In the face of unpredictable weather patterns, farmers are facing a major challenge in meeting consumer demand for consistent access to fresh produce, year-round. The long-term economic fallout from failed crops has been particularly devastating and retailers have had to adjust their sourcing practices accordingly - seeking out producers who can guarantee year-round supply despite environmental variables. Protected cropping solutions provide an environment in which crops can flourish, and growing seasons can be extended, despite the extremes of Australian weather or climate conditions.
This solution aims to protect the country’s crop yields and increase the quality of yield from the Australian agricultural industry. The 2021-2030 Australian Protected Cropping Strategy focuses on identifying market-opportunities, growing exports and building the capacity of Australian growers to adopt protected cropping methods.
Enclosing vulnerable crops within a protected growing structure, protects them from abrupt changes in temperature, rainfall, harsh wind, and lower chances of pests invading crops. The result – reduced needs for chemical inputs, higher yields and more efficient use of resources by protecting against risks that come with farming in harsher climates.