WHILE Longreach residents sweltered through a new temperature record last November - 13 days in a row above 40 degrees - coral and cos lettuce plants at Michael Lockery's Longreach-based hydroponics farm were waving delicate red and green leaves in defiance of the heat.
The ability to supply one of the hotter and more remote regions of the state with crisp fresh produce, and types not easily procured in the west, is what the Longreach grower hopes will give his new business the edge.
Some 1000 square metres and about 5500 plants are enclosed beneath swathes of hail netting on a block beside the Thomson River, while a purpose-built shed nearby houses a system delivering a litre-and-a-half of clean, nutrient-filled water every minute to the roots of delicacies such as mustard cabbage and Asian spinach.
Originally from Bundaberg, where he has farmed on and off all his life, Michael has been a familiar face in Longreach as the Eagle Street Pizza owner.
His "fairly major" investment in hydroponics came as a way of expanding opportunities.
There have been plenty of challenges along the way, from the wind, the sun and predators, but they have all taught valuable lessons best learnt early.
Michael brought in Brisbane-based Glenn and Lyn Boxsell to design and supply an Ell-gro system that would handle the heat for what he claims is the only hydroponics farm operating on a commercial scale west of Emerald.
The Boxsells had previously designed systems for Guam and the Maldives, so Michael was confident they would understand his needs.
"That part has proved itself, but I know I need more shade," he said.
Hot winds have been playing havoc with the seed-raising part of his operation - think 47-degree days and 72km/h winds - and not a lot is going to survive.
Seedlings have been moved to an air-conditioned room where the constant temperature has brought about an exceptional strike rate, but Michael is now watching plants that are chasing the light and not putting development into their roots. He says grow rooms are the answer and has just ordered a number of lights.
"Plenty of places have them - more to keep things warm enough.
"I hadn't factored it in, but it's all part of the learning curve."
More trial and error came about when Rutherglen bugs swarmed onto developing bok choy plants, which had to be fed to hungry sheep.
"This is a commercial operation and I can't afford to be feeding bugs so I do spray, but the best solution is to find something they don't like and grow that."
So far, Shanghai choy varieties do not seem to have tempted insect taste buds.
Hydropnics in the central west
- A mesh fence around the home block has foiled kangaroos, rabbits and hares - and the netting keeps birds away.
- Water comes from the Thomson River, thanks to a 2-megalitre licence, and a computerised system tests the pH levels and nutrient content every minute.
- Seeds are supplied from three different companies, and continual experimentation with supposedly heat-tolerant varieties is taking place.
- Michael has had to ramp his power up from single-phase to three-phase electricity to cope with the system installed, which, planning for the future, will be able to handle a fivefold increase in production.
- As Longreach experiences its summer exodus and demand has dropped off, Michael has been able to get some hardier tomato, capsicum, chilli, zucchini and squash plants into pots. He is also excited about the possibilities of the herb market and is trialling coriander, dill, sage, chives, parsley and basil, based on restaurant and local shopper feedback.
Expansion plans and opportunities
Sales plans to date have seen Michael sell his produce through the pizza shop, but he hopes to have a farm-gate outlet in future, and will be talking to supermarkets once supply can be guaranteed.
"Our product will be the same price as you see in shops now but much fresher," he said.
"We could pick and box something and put it in our cold room that afternoon, and have it to a shop the next day. There'll be no comparison with food from away. That's the advantage we hope we'll have."
Michael sees plenty of scope for increased sales - even as far as Bedourie and border towns - but wants to consolidate his operation first.
"I've just got to make sure I've got enough product coming on all the time - I don't want demand to outstrip supply straight up."
It is a cautious approach but, if the popularity of Chinese market gardens in the west in years gone by is anything to go by, it could be a big winner.