The “mythology” of regenerative agriculture and lack of scientific evidence has prompted two renowned plant scientists to write to Ag Minister Damien O’Connor.
The farm is designed to be fossil fuel-free and feature solar and wind power, bio-fuel, and energy storage solutions while showcasing the range of technology available and how it can be applied, as well as providing data for research and innovation.
Project leaders Dr Wim de Koning and Dr Jeff Heyl say the farm would allow the University and their research partners to make mistakes, so farmers won’t have to.
“Transitioning to sustainable energy in the agri-food sector is a necessity,” de Koning said.
“The Government’s zero carbon legislation has provided a time-frame of 30 years for completion of this transition.
“To meet the Government goal of 100% renewable energy by 2035, we need to start making the first major steps with urgency.
De Koning said the farm would show the diverse range of sustainable energy production technology currently available, from fossil fuel to circular food production systems.
“The small and medium-sized enterprises operating in the primary industries need a pre-investment proof of concept. They don’t have the capacity to make mistakes by investing in the wrong technology. At the Energy Demonstration Farm we can explore alternatives, not all of which may be successful. We can provide that proof so the right choices are made.”
Heyl said the farm could investigate “every kind of energy that we can think of” - not just the obvious wind and solar.
Algae ponds might be used to create biofuels, ground-source heat pumps might manage a greenhouse, providing a controlled temperature year round at virtually no cost, while secondary solar might be used to heat water rather than generate electricity.
It would all be in the context of crops, with animals, in a rural environment, he said.
The 6ha chosen site for the farm is on good cropping soil and shares a boundary with the University’s Research Dairy Farm.
“We’re gonna be interacting with the research dairy farm, not in the very least because they’ve got effluent and it’s a terrific source of energy for biofuels and stuff like that,” said Heyl.
Another possibility was a recent innovation into biodiesel production reported overseas which is said to produce much higher yield and quality.
“If there were someone in New Zealand who wanted to to demonstrate that in a way that made it viable for the average person to go out and put that on their farm, well this is an opportunity for them to do that.”
A mock-up concept model of the farm includes solar panels elevated above crops.
Heyl said there was nothing new in that, but people could run into problems, such as the US growers who recently found that solar panels installed above their cranberries was cutting too much sunlight and the crop was not maturing properly.
“That’s the type of things that we can test here, we can demonstrate here and say listen, this is what you need to know to be able to make a decision about what’s right for you.”
De Koning said another example would be a farmer with a 40-year-old shearing shed looking at replacement but wondering whether to put in new poles and power lines for something that may only be used a few days a year – or to try to take the shed off the grid.
“At the moment there’s nowhere they can actually go that actually shows them, this is a combination of wind, solar or whatever that is applicable to my farm, and a battery solution, because if I want to shear at 8 o’clock at night, I still need to have electricity.”
Heyl and de Koning hope to have “something physical” on the ground this year and were seeking partners with ideas to test.
“We’re gonna demonstrate that it works then we’re gonna make sure that it’s sustainable it’s feasible and it’s bankable,” said de Koning.
“A couple of banks that we’re talking to are very very excited to be part of this.”
The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) is also a partner in the project.
MPI acting director investment portfolio, Cheyne Gillooly, said the Energy Demonstration Farm has the potential for farmers to explore the technology and test it before they make an investment.
“Farming is a high tech, high capital business and New Zealand farmers have always been at the forefront of innovative farming techniques. We’re excited to support the Energy Demonstration Farm and help give farmers an opportunity to test the technology beforehand.”