Does urban farming have a future?

Passion rather than profit drives most urban farming

Urban farms have taken off but can they be profitable? A number of small players think the answer is 'yes'.

In the heart of Melbourne, the Little Veggie Patch Co leases more than 140 vegetable crates to the public, as well as the restaurants and cafes in adjacent Federation Square that grow fresh ingredients for their daily menus.

Nearby, the beehives of Melbourne City Rooftop Honey are producing honey, also for use in the restaurants. Up the road at the rooftop worm farm of Mesa Verde restaurant, thousands of worms work their way through vegetable waste and coffee.

Urban farmers in Melbourne are not alone: similar ventures can be found all around Australia, with more than 180 farmers’ markets regularly selling fresh, local produce to city dwellers.

Driven by increasingly sophisticated consumers, those wanting to save money or live sustainably, urban food generation has steadily grown in recent years.  

In contrast to increasingly industrial-scale food production world-wide, urban food generation is predominantly local and small. Passion, rather than profit, drives most enterprises.

Indeed, very few have made the transition to profitable businesses, surviving on a shoestring or with some government funding.Which begs the question: Is profitability in local farming possible?

Thinking vertically

One small-scale urban farm, the Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies (CERES), a not-for-profit farm cooperative with four hectares in inner north Melbourne, has shown that combining the business with related sidelines is often the way to survival.

Started over 30 years ago by teachers who wanted to show children how to grow things, CERES propagates seeds, grows and sells produce, has a cafe and a regular market, as well as being an education centre. It employs 160 people and turns over nine million dollars each year..

Some 70,000 schoolchildren go through CERES annually and this fee-for-service arrangement is a significant contributor to its income stream, as are its hospitality and horticulture courses.

Chris Ennis, CERES’ general manager, says that to be viable it’s important to layer income streams on top of the farm, much the way rural counterparts do.

“We know that if we want to be farmers in the city, we are also going to have to be teachers, do secondary processing, value add, cook the food, have our own market [and] get the retail dollar as well as the wholesale dollar,” he says.

That sentiment is echoed by Mat Pember, founder of Little Vegie Patch Co, whose business encompasses a nursery, the vegie crates and a wide range of gardening products and information, which are also sold and promoted via its website and free digital magazines. Balcony and window-ledge gardeners are his prime customers.

Pember, who studied commerce and accounting at university, says that while the company started out of a personal passion, it is run very much as a business. It aims to offer value and be sustainable.

He believes the demand is there and sees a big opportunity in educating people to grow food for themselves.

There is also increasing interest from corporates, who see the marketing opportunity in concepts like the vegie crates at Federation Square.

While both Ennis and Pemble are optimistic about the future of urban farming, the obstacles can be formidable, as Australian recycling and reuse warrior Joost Bakker found.  

Known for his inventive and practical approach to re-using waste through vertical gardens and pop up cafés, Bakker’s ambitious plan to grow crops on a zero waste city rooftop farm and restaurant was knocked back by Melbourne City Council in 2013, on the basis that it breached height regulations.

With space being the prime issue for urban farmers, Pember says the opportunity offered by council property is mired by competing agendas, extensive red tape and slowness to move.

The pop-up patch at Federation Square is a prime example which, according to Pember, wouldn’t have happened on public land.

“It is a matter of finding the right business – and a lot of businesses are open to urban farming because of the marketing opportunity it provides – which can act quickly.”

“Find a competitive edge over those farms at the edge of the city,” advises CERES’ Ennis.

“Look for a niche and grow high-value crops that you don’t have to move very far. Work out what technology, what plants, what crops are going to fit – and if you crack that you can be a city farmer.”

6 urban farms that work

Scratch the surface in most of the world’s biggest cities and you will find small-scale agriculture in the city, reflecting a demand for premium food that is fresh and local.

1.    Brooklyn Grange, Brooklyn, New York: One of the world’s largest rooftop farms with 2.5 acres on two buildings growing more than 50,000 pounds of produce annually.

2.    Zuidpark rooftop vegetable garden in Amsterdam provides a harvest oasis for employees of the several companies that lease the building.

3.    At the Paris Institute for Life, Food, and Environmental Sciences, the rooftop gardens of the AgroParisTech cover an area of 800 square metres and use organic waste and wood as a lightweight growing base to produce and test fruits and vegetables.

4.    And beneath the streets of Paris, organic mushroom farming is returning to the catacombs.

5.    Perhaps the most ambitious example of large-scale urban production is Singapore’s Sky Greens, the world’s first large-scale, low-carbon vertical vegetable farm. Made up of 120 30-metre aluminium towers, it produces one tonne of vegetables every two days and provides a small local supply to a highly urban country that imports more than 90 per cent of its vegetables. The business is seeking international investors to help build 300 additional towers.

6.   Hong Kong’s Time to Grow has launched about 20 urban farms and already turned a profit. This organic urban farming consultancy took root on Hong Kong’s rooftops, where real estate prices are astronomical.

Read next: Organic urban rooftop farming takes root in Hong Kong

December/January 2022
December/January 2022

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