Urban microfarmers are moving food production into the cities

In a streetscape largely unchanged since it was built in the 1800s, Hobart’s Battery Point is probably the last place you would expect to find a farm growing the equivalent of two acres of production.

Tucked away in Peter Handy’s backyard is a controlled environment unit that houses vertical pastures, the first of its kind in the southern hemisphere.

Mr Handy is changing the definition of what it means to be a farmer.

“I know it’s really funny, because when people say to me, ‘Where’s your farm?’, I’ll say ‘it’s in Battery Point’ and they look perplexed, and they’re like, ‘No there’s no farms at Battery Point’,” he said.

Leafy greens grow inside a shipping container with white light shining on them
Indoor farms can grow leafy greens, herbs, root vegetables and even flowering plants such as strawberries. (ABC Rural: David Barnott-Clement)

Not just a backyard project, Mr Handy is running a business.

“It’s here because I need to be as close to my clients and my customers, the chefs and restaurants of Hobart,” he said.

“I aim to use the least amount of food miles as possible and make this super-efficient and lean business.”

Two acres of production in a 40-foot space

Using LED lights and hydroponic nutrients, the farm grows lettuces, leafy greens, Asian greens, herbs, root vegetables and flowering plants.

Using 95 per cent less water than traditional farming, the farm ticks the box environmentally.

“I mean, this is definitely not the answer to food sustainability in the world. But it’s definitely a part of it,” Mr Handy said.

Small leafy greens are growing out of pockets in a vertical farm set up
As a hydroponic system, vertical farms can reuse water and nutrients in a closed loop cycle. (ABC Rural: David Barnott-Clement)

Changing the nature of the world

Science writer Julian Cribb believes a world food crisis is imminent, due to a combination of loss of water, loss of topsoil, climate change and overuse of poisons.

“We’re going to need to change the nature of the way we produce food and change the human diet at the same time,” he said.

Mr Cribb said new urban farming methods would see most of the world’s great cities feeding themselves.

“If you go to Dubai, you’ll find that Emirates has built a 50-storey urban farm that looks like a car park; they call these things sky farms. It’s basically just a layer of hydroponic production, growing fresh fruit and vegetables for airline meals.

“I mean, Dubai is not a famous farming country, but it’s becoming a major producer of food.”

Elderly man stands in front of willow tree
Julian Cribb says it is time for Australia to look indoors for agriculture. (ABC: Eloise Fuss)

Making a business out of your backyard

Like many others, Robyn Ayles’ urban farm is tucked away in her backyard in Toowoomba.

Growing specialty mushrooms for restaurants and local farmers’ markets, Ms Ayles has found farming in a shipping container not just more efficient but also easy to establish.

“Because they are so portable it’s an instant fix and they’re insulated,” she said.

Man and Female stand under a gazebo at a market stall selling mushrooms
Selling their mushrooms at local farmers markets, Robyn Ayles says her product tells a story. (Supplied: Robyn Ayles)

Ms Ayles said urban farming was not just selling a product to market, but selling the story of a small-scale local farm that uses renewable energy and has low food miles.

“We sell to a lot of restaurants here in Toowoomba, and they advertise the fact that they purchase locally, so food miles are important to them and [so is sourcing] from micro farms, rather than the big ones.

Recently harvested mushrooms of the colours white, yellow and red sit in a box.
A controlled environment is extremely beneficial for mushrooms as they require specific conditions to grow effectively in. (Supplied: Robyn Ayles)

Traditional farming not going anywhere

Julian Cribb said Australia was still quite a way off from adopting urban farming.

“It’s only just going to sink in; that we might not be able to farm in a hot world” he said.

A street in Battery Point, Hobart.
Battery Point — not the likeliest venue for a farm growing two acres’ worth of production.(Google Earth)

But Mr Cribb believes that poses a rather unique opportunity for Australian farmers to sell their expertise to cities, teaching people to grow food in urban environments.

“I think the urban farmers, a lot of them are corporate, and they’ve got no idea,” he said.

“They need people with the skills to grow crops, and livestock, and meat and all sorts of things. There’s a huge job opportunity for people with good agricultural skill levels in city production.”



SOURCE: https://www.abc.net.au/news/rural/2022-01-25/shipping-container-farmers-growing-food-without-a-farm/100756150

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