‘Feed the Bush’: cropping in a cube

07.02.22

Fran McLaughlin was recently announced as one of seven recipients of the inaugural AgriFutures Rural Women’s Acceleration Grant. Her idea, ‘Feed the Bush’ is set to make fresh produce more accessible to rural communities and provide a sustainable alternative to broadacre vegetable production, enabling crops to be grown in new areas.

Cropping in a cube

With a career that spans broadacre cropping, vegetable growing, construction, accounting and organic herbs, Fran sees new technology as their ticket back into food production.

“We’ve been researching intensive horticulture systems and we have found a system that we think can sustainably deliver fresh produce and change people’s mindset on accessing fresh food,” says Fran.

‘Feed the Bush’ was born out of a desire to change the narrative around how we source food, solve access issues for remote communities and maximise productivity while minimising resources.

“My husband spent a fair bit of time contracting in Northwest NSW and he witnessed firsthand the inaccessibility of fresh food, especially for remote and indigenous communities.

“A lot of us take it for granted, we go out for dinner or go to the supermarket and can put our hands on whatever fresh produce we want. Whereas it is a very different situation in other parts of the country,” Fran explains.

The concept of ‘Feed the Bush’ uses an intensive horticulture system called the InvertiCube to grow sustainable produce. The 1.5m x 1.5m cubes are kept indoors, use 95% less water than broadacre cropping, require no chemicals or pesticides and can be controlled through an iPad. Not to mention, they provide an optimum growing environment that can reduce your crop growing cycle to just 35 days.

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“Using the InvertiCube system, we could potentially harvest 10 crops of lettuce in a year, whereas traditionally a grower would get two or three crops per annum,” Fran explains.

What needs to change?

With net zero by 2030 targets front of mind, Fran says it’s time to start looking at the sustainability of our food supply chains in their current form.

“We have trucks coming left, right and centre, but how are we going to even attempt net zero emissions if we are shipping produce hundreds of kilometres, only to turn around and come back to our supermarkets. Where’s the common sense in that?

“COVID-19 has really put a spotlight on inaccessibility and supply chains. We can’t access things that we have previously taken for granted, and fresh produce is a prime example of that and it’s far worse for remote communities,” says Fran.

The InvertiCube by InvertiGro

Keen to shake up the food system in rural and remote Australia, these systems would empower remote and Indigenous communities to grow their own food locally and consume this fresh produce locally, decreasing travel miles, and increasing shelf life and nutrient value.

Acknowledging collaboration will be key, Fran is looking to align ‘Feed the Bush’ with the likes of local supermarkets to community groups, childcare centres, aged care facilities and schools, community gardens and local councils to showcase the opportunities for jobs, better health and wellbeing, and access to fresh food.

The sky is the limit

As far as Fran is concerned, there’s no limit to the possibilities ‘Feed the Bush’ could provide.

“Our idea is to establish this concept, create blueprints and commercialise it across the country, bringing a new sustainable industry to areas previously unsuitable for vegetable production.”

The modular farming system is affordable to set up and operate, the cubes are easily scalable, and the systems provide exciting opportunities for farmers to diversify their crops.

“We currently live on a lifestyle block at Narrandera NSW, and are setting up a demonstration to show that this system can open up opportunities for small scale operators to be involved in profitable and sustainable food production, as well as large scale commercial operators”

“There’s over 100 crops that we could grow in this system including a wide range of leafy greens, herbs and selected fruit and vegetables, micro herbs and indigenous plants,” Fran explains.

And it doesn’t stop at food for humans, the cubes can also produce fresh fodder for livestock, helping to drought proof farms and increase carrying capacity. Fran says there’s even herbal products renowned for methane reduction in cattle which could be grown, a hot topic when it comes to emissions reduction for the livestock industry.

With land prices skyrocketing across the country, these innovative cubes could also be a unique opportunity for those wanting to pursue farming without the capital required to purchase a traditional farm.

Accelerating from idea to reality

Being announced as an AgriFutures Rural Women’s Acceleration Grant recipient has given Fran the boost she needed to turn her idea into a reality.

“From my perspective, being awarded the Acceleration Grant was an acknowledgement that our idea has merit. I can’t wait to connect with others with an innovative mindset going through the same process of trying to bring an idea to life.

“I really do think now is the time to be involved in sustainable agriculture, so anything that encourages people to take the leap, build their networks and showcase their ideas is incredibly beneficial.”