Regenerative agriculture is often touted as a possible solution to resolve future food security — and one farm is replacing 60 per cent of Christmas Island’s imported product.
- Christmas Island imports more than 90 per cent of its food.
- Freight costs cause unsustainable pricing on the island
- The farm will aim to produce 3 tonnes of fresh produce per week by 2022
It is a pertinent issue on the island where more than 90 per cent of fresh produce is imported, and crippling freight prices drive a single lettuce to cost up to $20.
Those figures are improving with every harvest at Hidden Garden Sustainable Farm, the only commercial-scale agricultural operation within 2,600 kilometres northwest of the mainland.
Up until 2015, the land it sits on was an old, degraded mine site.
But with a combination of permaculture and regenerative techniques, it was rehabilitated into a sustainable, productive food system.
Mixed orchards, poultry systems, and high-intensity greenhouse production will aim to feed a population of about 2,000 people.
With more than 30 different crops successfully in the ground, owner Mark Bennett said the future looked promising.
“Our goal is to reduce as much of the imported food coming to Christmas Island with what we can grow in the tropics here,” he said.
“The project is not only about trying to overcome the food security issue, but it is also about trying to inspire the community to look into the future and see where we can diversify our economy.”
By 2022, the farm hoped to produce about 3 tonnes of fruit and vegetables per week.
Soil is life
Out of the 50 crops trialled, not all survived, and the farm soon realised they needed to ameliorate the soil at the 55-acre site.
More than 60 million years, guano started to develop on the surface of the island, amassing into one of the richest sources and most valuable deposits of phosphate in the world.
Although phosphorus is an essential macronutrient for crop growth, not much else was found beneath the surface.
Mr Bennett said nutrient deficiencies in the soil were limiting but could be overcome with organic farming methods.
“If you’ve got really high phosphate levels, people tend to think that it is great, and technically it is good, but the phosphate in the soils become bioavailable in more acidic conditions,” he said.
“The soils we have here are quite alkaline, which means the phosphate is locked up.
“It doesn’t become available to the plants unless you’ve got the microbial systems in place, and an upper humus level that is recycling the material and breaking it down, so the plants can basically take it up and make use of it.”
Mr Bennett said the farm composted community-generated organic waste to rejuvenate the land.
“We do that by trying to maintain a good amount of green cover, putting things in like compost, and adding different microbes into the soil, trying to get it as active as possible.”
Water: An essential
Seasonal conditions on Christmas Island oscillated between extremes, and with unpredictable dry spells, water management was crucial to survival.
Mr Bennett said it was testing at times.
“In 2016, we had a year where we had more than five metres of rain. All your socks were wet for the whole 12 months,” he said.
“Straight after that, we had an extended dry season, with dust willy-willies.
However, relying on rainfall data was not an option, and Mr Bennett said he teamed up with recently passed permaculture guru Paul Taylor who designed a concept for the farm.
“Utilising the natural lay of the land, we capture as much surface runoff in the wet season as we can,” Mr Bennett said.
“In some areas where there are old mine pits, we’ve lined them with geofabric material to capture the rainwater.
Total water storage on the farm is currently four megalitres, but expansion to 10ML was approved.
Mr Bennett said they spent a lot of time, energy and money developing the water systems.
“Because of the nature of the soils here, we can’t actually pack them down as you would traditionally in many parts of Australia to create an earthen dam,” he said.
“We’ve got to bring in geofabrics and poly material to line the earth worked dam; otherwise, the water just seeps through to the limestone underneath.
“It is quite an expensive exercise, but it something that is essential for us if we want to expand our production.”
Every farm needs a furry friend
Before the inception of Hidden Garden produce, it was estimated Christmas Island residents paid 250 per cent more for fresh fruit and vegetables than their mainland counterparts.
Mr Bennett said other products suffered, and in the long term, he hoped to fix that.
“Eggs are a product that are consumed heavily on the island, and probably in every community, we can pay over $12 for caged eggs, so getting a system up and running here that can provide every family with some cheap, fresh, free-range eggs is something we are really keen on,” he said.
“In the future, we want to expand animal husbandry systems and perhaps move into goats and tropical sheep in the longer term.”