The miracle of solar-powered perfect tomatoes

In one of the driest parts of South Australia Sundrop Farms is growing plump, red truss tomatoes powered by the sun and seawater. Sundrop has been named Coles’ Fresh Produce Supplier of the Year. 

Sundrop Farms CEO Steve Marafiote in his farm

Sundrop Farms CEO Steve Marafiote.

As a student Steve Marafiote never imagined he would end up running Australia’s largest solar-powered tomato greenhouse.

“I studied commerce at university, not horticulture,” he laughs. “But my family has always been heavily involved in agriculture, so farming must be in my DNA, I suppose.”

These days Steve is CEO of Sundrop Farms, a giant solar-powered facility near Port Augusta – a small coastal community overlooking the Spencer Gulf, 300km north of Adelaide.

Opened in 2016 the futuristic outback tomato farm produces around 350 tonnes of truss tomatoes each week; all of them destined for Coles shelves around Australia.

“Nearly all of our power comes from the sun and our water comes from the ocean, specifically the Spencer Gulf,” according to Steve. “We backfill empty Coles delivery trucks so our CO2 output is minimal.”

Sundrop Farms signed 10-year contract to supply truss tomatoes to Coles in 2014; this agreement, a global first, allowed the farms’ owners to invest $200 million in the project.

Apart from the obvious environmental benefits of using solar power and desalinated sea water, Sundrop Farms is also making a significant economic impact on the Port Augusta region.

“We have created 300 new jobs at the farm – from engineering and accounting to labouring,” he says. “We’ve also been able to provide a career path for people from the local Indigenous community.”

Locating its solar-powered greenhouses in this part of South Australia allows the company to grow high-quality tomatoes all year round, rather than just during the warmer months.

“Traditionally Australians didn’t eat tomatoes in the winter because it was hard to get good tomatoes,” he says. “But we’ve been able to supply consistently great-tasting winter tomatoes to Coles.”

Endeavour Tomatoes were chosen because of their excellent flavour, long shelf life and versality – these vine-grown tomatoes are equally good for salads and in cooking recipes.

Shoppers at Coles are not the only people who are feeling the benefit of Steve’s 750,000 hydroponic tomato plants – his mates are also queuing up for plump, sweet-tasting fruit.

“Yeah, I’m pretty popular among my friends these days,” he laughs.

Tomatoes figure prominently at any Marafiote family Christmas gathering, where traditional Italian dishes jostle with Aussie festive staples like roast turkey, baked ham and prawns.

“My heritage is Italian so there are always tomatoes on the table,” he says.

While growing hydroponic vegetables under glass is not new, Steve says Sundrop Farms is the first large-scale grower to operate its own solar power station and a desalination plant.

“We’ve been able to demonstrate that is possible to take non-agricultural land and make it highly productive,” he says.

Using the solar energy from 23,000 mirrors, Sundrop Farms heats vast boilers of saltwater which in turn generate the power needed to heat its 20-hectare array of glasshouses.

“A farm like ours would typically burn diesel, coal or oil but we’ve replaced that with solar power,” he says.

In the summer, Steve explains, these giant structures are climate-controlled using evaporative cooling.

Sundrop Farms has taken a similarly forward-thinking approach to the issue of insects and disease control, abandoning chemical sprays in favour of more eco-friendly solutions.

“Our greenhouses are enclosed so that allows us to control what diseases and pests are inside the structures,” he says.

“We then use predatory insects to target any pests attacking our tomato vines, reducing and nearly removing the need for insecticide.”

With the increasing global demand for clean, fresh and sustainable food, Steve believes that the Sundrop Farms model could be adopted elsewhere; similar projects have been trialled in the US, Portugal and elsewhere in Australia.

“We are definitely looking at other avenues,” he says. “There’s no reason that we should not be growing other great fruit and vegetables – here or elsewhere using our philosophies of sustainable farming.”

Sundrop Farms truss tomatoes are available at Coles Supermarkets nationwide.

Coles Supplier Award winners are chosen from nearly 400 nominations and are judged on criteria including inspiring customers, driving innovation, providing outstanding service, supply chain excellence and demonstrating corporate and social responsibility. Winners also include:

  • Own Brand Supplier of the Year: Suntory Coffee
  • Meat, Seafood and Deli Supplier of the Year: Primo
  • Bakery Supplier of the Year: George Weston Foods
  • Product of the Year: Monday Hair Care (Zuru)
  • Sustainability Supplier of the Year: True Foods
  • Community Champion of the Year: Reckitt Benckiser
  • Convenience Supplier of the Year: Da Vinci
  • Dairy and Freezer Supplier of the Year: The Milk Department
  • Non-Food Supplier of the Year: Sukin
  • Grocery Supplier of the Year: Asahi
  • Liquor Supplier of the Year: Pernod Ricard Australia
  • Coles Express Supplier of the Year: Red Bull
  • Coles Service Champion of the Year: The Probe Group and The Resilience Project

Want to make the most of our tomatoes? Try these 3 delicious recipes