Wed, Nov 28, 2012 - Page 9 News List

The agricultural revolution takes hold

Philipp Saumweber is creating a miracle in the barren Australian outback, growing tonnes of fresh food. So why has he fallen out with the pioneering environmentalist who invented the revolutionary system?

By Jonathan Margolis  /  The Observer

When you visit the agreeable Paton family in Hackney it becomes clear the gas-boiler incident out in the desert was far from the whole reason for the fallout with Sundrop. There was also a serious clash of styles. Saumweber is a banker by training and lives in prosperous west London, while the Patons are artistic and live part of the time in a forest clearing in Sussex (south of London) in a wooden house without electricity. Charlie, an amateur and a tinkerer at heart, a highly knowledgeable polymath rather than a scientist, is also a proud man, whose intense blue eyes burn when he discusses how his invention has, in his view, been debased by the ambitious young men and women who moved it on to the next level.

The difference was essentially political, an idealist/pragmatist schism. The Patons — Charlie, his wife, jeweler and art school teacher Marlene McKibbin, son Adam, 25, a design engineer and daughter Alice, 26, a fine art graduate — are a tight, highly principled bunch who gather almost every day for a family lunch, like a wholemeal and Palestinian organic olive oil version of the Ewings of Southfork Ranch.

The Seawater Greenhouse method, which they are still promoting actively, involves no desalination plant, no gleaming solar mirrors and little by way of anything electronic. Everything in the Seawater Greenhouse vision is low-tech, cheap to start up and reliant on the subtle, gentle interaction of evaporation and condensation of seawater with wind, both natural and artificial, blown by fans powered by solar panels. If things go wrong and production is disrupted by a glitch in this model, you just persuade people to eat perfectly good but odd-looking produce — or harvest less and stand firm by your sustainable principles.

Although the concept is attractive and the philosophy will chime with many a green consumer, the Seawater Greenhouse installation is less elegant. Pratt, fresh to the team from growing tomatoes in Canada, almost went straight back when he saw the kit Adam and Alice Paton had painstakingly put together.

“It was like a construction by the Beverly Hillbillies,” Pratt says. “They had these 15,000 hand-made plastic pipes meant to work as heat exchangers, but they just dripped seawater on the plants, which was disastrous.”

Charlie Paton’s perspective on things is, naturally, a little different.

“I did have a falling-out with Philipp,” he says. “It was a joint venture, but we disagreed on a number of things. Being a cautious investor, he called in consultants and horticulturalists, and one said if you don’t put in a gas boiler you’re going to lose money and get poor produce. I was persuaded about the need for some heating, but it could have been supplied by solar panels. It wasn’t such a big deal, perhaps, but it was a syndrome that ran through everything we did. Philipp is the king of the spreadsheet, and trying to make the numbers go black meant he just rushed everything. I’m all for the thing being profitable, but there are levels of greed I found a bit, well, not quite right. I wish him well, though, and if it’s fabulously successful, then fine.”

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