Inventor David Soo had no idea his life would change dramatically after having dinner with an old friend in Far North Queensland.
- Vanilla is a lucrative crop but challenging and labour-intensive to grow
- An inventor hopes to produce a tonne of vanilla using a custom-designed ‘dome’ greeenhouse
- Specific growing conditions inside the dome can be adjusted by mobile device
The Sydney-based engineer’s dining partner was a local chef, who had a narrow escape from harm in Papua New Guinea, where he was robbed by bow-and-arrow-wielding bandits.
“He had an export license for vanilla in PNG,” Mr Soo said.
“On his last trip, he got ambushed after he’d paid the money and was taking the vanilla beans back down to the city.
“He said he didn’t want to do it anymore because it’s too dangerous and I thought, ‘Well why can’t we do it here in Australia?’.”
Finding the sweet spot in a lucrative market
Mr Soo discovered that vanilla was in hot demand.
It sells for about $600 a kilogram and is the second-most lucrative spice crop in the world behind saffron.
“A lot of the big food processors or manufacturers, such as Nestle, are now moving or mandating that they only want naturally grown vanilla, they don’t want synthetic vanilla,” he said.
“I thought, ‘Well there’s an inelastic demand curve there’.”
Discovering a voracious market was one thing; the challenge was developing a commercially viable way to grow the sometimes tricky and labour-intensive crop.
The solution Mr Soo is developing is a custom-designed, 350-cubic-metre greenhouse, with controlled growing conditions that can be adjusted by mobile device.
Now three years into a pilot project on the Central Coast of New South Wales, Mr Soo is growing about 200 vanilla vines in a patented geodesic dome greenhouse.
He claims the vines are growing three times faster than in a plantation environment.
Part of the success came from planting the crop in vertical soil-filled trellises, which allow the vines to take root and get nutrients at all levels.
“The trellises are designed for what we call three-dimensional plants — because they’re vines and they have their root structures coming out of the nodes at all different parts along the vine, they don’t come from the bottom,” Mr Soo said.
“Out at places like Madagascar where they have to climb up trees, they then have to send their roots all the way down to the ground, so the higher the vines, the less nutrients they get.”
A step towards sustainability
The trellis columns rotate automatically so that all of the vines get equal access to sunlight.
It’s an innovation developed in partnership with the French multinational, Schneider Electric.
The company’s director for industrial automation, Brad Yager, said the goal was a more sustainable farming system.
“We do energy and automation solutions across a range of industries, but getting involved in a project like this to help develop a more sustainable automated solution was really appealing to us,” Mr Yager said.
Agricultural scientist Dr John Troughton, who has been a consultant to some of the biggest food companies in the world, said the vanilla dome was a unique design and a great example of Australian ingenuity.
“Plants like being inside and if you optimise the temperature, the humidity, the light, all those factors, you suddenly have taken out the major variable, which is climate,” Dr Troughton said.
“Automation is one of the key drivers we work on to convert agriculture and horticulture; in other words, the more we can automate these operations, the more efficient they’re going to be, the more effective they’re going to be, the more water-use efficient they’re going to be, the more productive they’re going to be.”
The vines in the pilot farm are yet to flower, which is when pollination occurs.
Mr Soo said he was confident of yielding about a tonne of vanilla bean from his crop.
Once processed and dried, this would be worth about $600,000.
After completing the trial, he hoped to market the vanilla dome so that he could buy beans off his clients and become a supplier.
“The greenhouse is a means to an end — we need to be able to grow the vines,” he said.
“I’ve patented the design, the greenhouse and the trellises, but what I’d like to be able to do is reduce the production costs, make it very much available to a lot of people to actually buy these greenhouses and grow them for themselves.”
Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline at 12:30pm or on iview.