Series of fortunate events leads Horizon Scholar to Farmwall

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Above: Indianna Rhind at the Horizon Scholarship workshop.

As an undergraduate studying a Bachelor of Agricultural Engineering at the University of Southern Queensland, Indiana Rhind couldn’t have expected the series of fortunate events that unfolded after she successfully applied for an AgriFutures Horizon Scholarship in 2018.

Indiana had developed a passion for agriculture through working at her school farm in her hometown of Berkeley Vale on the NSW Central Coast, where she helped set up an aquaponics system in Year 10.

“I loved the aquaponics system, where waste from the fish feeds bacteria, it fertilises the plants, they clean the water and that goes back to the fish. I just loved that an agricultural system can be closed loop, it can be an ecosystem, it can go back to what the environment naturally does,” said Indiana.

Three years later, the 2018 AgriFutures Horizon Scholar visited Melbourne for the first AgriFutures evokeAG. event showcasing the latest innovation in agritech and spotted a stall with an aquaponics system. It was Farmwall.

“I was so excited that they had this really cool thing that I’d been thinking about for years, so I just went up and started a conversation with Farmwall founders, Geert and Serena, and now I’m a co-founder and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of the company!” Indiana said.

“I was just really lucky with timing.”

Vertical farms tie in with scholarships

Farmwall works with corporates, schools, restaurants and households to implement closed-loop food production systems in their day-to-day lives, by installing vertical ‘farms’ – bookcase-sized aquaponic systems that grow microgreens to ensure food security.

Indiana did work placement with the company and in her final year of Honours, Farmwall sponsored research that informed her thesis on developing machine vision to automatically detect mould growing in hydroponic situations.

Good timing also enabled Indiana to benefit from back-to-back AgriFutures Horizon Scholarships. In 2018 the Scholarship was open to undergraduates for the first two years of their degree, but a change in 2020 offered it to students for the last two years of their degree.

Indiana successfully applied for both. In 2020 her sponsor was the Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia (CRCNA), which provided $10,000 over two years to assist with her study and living expenses as well as professional development workshops and work placements to kick start her career in agriculture.

“CRCNA provided a different perspective for me. Being from NSW originally and then southern Queensland, northern Australia wasn’t something I ever really considered, but it was so interesting to see how many unique challenges they have up there,” she said.

“It really opened my eyes. You think you understand the world and you go somewhere else and just hear someone else’s perspective and all of a sudden, it’s a whole new world.”

Horizon Scholarship ‘best experience ever’

As someone who didn’t have a farming background, she was surprised to be awarded the scholarships, and describes the experience as ‘encouraging, exciting and empowering’.

“I can honestly say it was the best experience ever,” said Indiana.

“I got to meet up with a cohort of like-minded students from all over Australia and we really developed a strong support network. The workshops we did every year were absolutely amazing for building confidence and learning important skills and networking.

“I’ve done so many different things in my work placements. I went to Bridge Hub in Wagga Wagga NSW and met the amazing Dianna Somerville, who taught me so much about being a businesswoman, then I saw vertical farming at Farmwall, and travelled to a sheep farm in Esperance WA to get some real farming experience with Rural Woman’s Award Winner, Belinda Lay.

“One of my other favourite placements was on a Ornatas lobster farm in Townsville, Queensland, so really the AgriFutures Horizon Scholarship can take you anywhere.”

Farmwall launches pre-seed funding round

In her role as Farmwall CTO, Indiana and co-founder Geert Hendrix are in the process of growing the business to the next level and have just opened up a pre-seed funding round for investors, seeking $300,000.

“As soon as we reach funding, we’ll extend the team quite significantly. We’re hoping to go into our proper seed round at the end of this year to expand Australia-wide and really start to grow the business,” she said.

“We’re embedding our impact in school within our corporate offering, where corporates can buy the physical Farmwalls but they’re tied to school programs and community farms, so that businesses get the social credits which are important for ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) reporting.

“That’s part of the reason why we registered as a for-profit social enterprise – we’re a circular business model and as corny as it sounds, we’re trying to make earth a better place.”

Farmwall provides vertical aquaponic systems to grow microgreens, highly nutrient-dense baby plants grown for 7-21 days that once harvested, can also be replanted in the ground and grown into a mature plant.

“At the moment one Farmwall serves around 120 individual microgreen serves, which are about 40 times more nutrient-dense than mature greens. By having it in the office or school canteen, we’re connecting people with agriculture,” Indiana explained.

“So, people get to enjoy their microgreens and one day a bunch of broccoli may turn up in the office and they had a part in making that appear.”

Connecting children with agriculture

After COVID-19 lockdown put a stop to their urban farm in the car park of Sydney’s Mirvac building, Farmwall developed education models to implement post-lockdown.

“We take a small-scale aquaponics kit into the classroom that the kids get to set up, they learn about the fish, put the plants in their lunches and every single person makes the food system work.

“It really makes them connect with agriculture, learn how complex a system it is, how it relates to sustainability and the world they live in, and just to get a connection back to the soil and plants,” said Indiana.

After spending a lot of time at USQ’s Research Centre for Agricultural Engineering while studying for her degree, Indiana is also seeking research partnerships for Farmwall.

“My degree really instilled in me the importance of research. A lot of the time you hear ‘Industry doesn’t want to accept research, they don’t like new things’ but at the same time from the business side, ‘They’re just not researching what we’re interested in’.

“I don’t think either side of that story is true. So, with Farmwall I’m making it a real point to start conversations with universities, to let them know that we’re open and happy to do research with them.”

Covid reveals food security concerns in cities

Indiana says the concept of Farmwall is even more important after the Covid-19 pandemic, which revealed the lack of self-sufficiency in food supply, particularly in urban areas.

“Cities actually have a really short term of available food. Some have only nine days in reserve, which is why we had those shortages during lockdown, because really cities can’t produce enough food to sustain the people.

“We really need to get cities to understand they need to put their foot in the door, otherwise if something bad happens, they’re out of food.”

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