Business Farming

Saturday 1 October 2016

Urban farmers roll up their sleeves

Interest in food production is on the rise among city dwellers

Grace Maher

Published 23/03/2016 | 02:30

Kitty Scully, the kitchen gardener, tending the plants at the Airfield Estate farm in Dundrum.
Kitty Scully, the kitchen gardener, tending the plants at the Airfield Estate farm in Dundrum.

The concept of cultivating food outside of the traditional rural farming system is nothing new, as throughout the years it has flourished many times especially during war time in Europe and the US.

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Now termed 'Urban Farming' it can be difficult to quantify exactly what this type of farming produces.

The fact that many urban farms may provide more knowledge about production methods and cultivating techniques than food itself is irrelevant, as they are obviously filling a void in terms of linking people in large urban areas directly to the farm.

Indirectly this also benefits farmers in rural areas, as urban dwellers gain a better understanding of food production, and what is required to produce high quality food.

There has been a sharp rise in people growing their own food in backyards, allotments and window boxes in recent years.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations reporting that 800 million people worldwide grow vegetables or fruits, or raise animals in cities, delivering an astonishing 15-20pc of the world's food.

In poorer parts of the world, people in cities have always farmed for subsistence, nutrition, food security and to generate an income.

The price of food is also a determining factor as people spend a much higher percentage of their total income on food than people in more developed nations do, so growing your own food no matter how little has a significant economic impact.

Community gardens

With the rise in urban farming, the community garden is becoming a more familiar sight in villages, towns and cities.

They are run by communities or networks of individuals and are all public spaces.

Many have some form of public funding and are supported by city councils in terms of planning and public policy.

Some are profit making, but the vast majority are communal gathering spaces and outdoor classrooms to teach people the basics of food production.

The therapeutic value of gardening has long been recognised and many facilities that offer services to people with special needs have gardens on site that produce food, while most are not open to the public these are community gardens.

Generally speaking, food produced in community gardens is grown organically, and IOFGA certifies a range of these gardens, however unless food is sold off site many gardens do not apply for organic status.

While Ireland is somewhat unique in the Western world in that most people are not many generations removed from the land, it is a growing concern just how uneducated people can be about how the food they consume is produced.

In this context the role that urban farming plays in educating people is crucial. Public gardens like the Botanic Gardens, run by the OPW play an important role. The walled fruit and vegetable garden is certified organic by IOFGA, and it has an estimated 500,000 visitors a year.

According to Joan Rogers, who manages the garden, they deal with a lot of questions from the public on a daily basis. "So much so that we run a variety of workshops about specific aspects of growing food.

"People have a real interest in how food is grown, in crop varieties used and management techniques," she said.

Urban dwellers informed about food production tend to have a deeper respect for the lengths to which farmers go to produce quality sustainable food, and at the end of the day larger urban centres with greater population densities are the target market for the majority of food produced in rural areas.

Grace Maher is the development officer with IOFGA grace.maher@iofga.org

The thriving working farm in the heart of Dublin's suburbs

Right in the centre of Dundrum in Dublin, surrounded by houses, apartments and shops, there is a Jersey dairy herd that people can see being milked daily.

In 1974, the Overend Family established Airfield Estate as a charitable organisation for education and recreational purposes.

There is also an ornamental garden and food garden on the 38ac working farm which has just converted to organic production with IOFGA.

After considerable investment, Airfield was re-opened to the public in 2014. Last year it had over 120,000 visitors to the Estate and 160,000 visitors to Overends Restaurant which is located on site.

Kitty Scully, the kitchen gardener at Airfield, explains why they opted to convert the food garden to organic production.

"Essentially we were gardening organically so we decided to take it a step further and apply for certification as it embodies best practice in growing food. On a personal level, I have an MSc in Organic Horticulture so really it is the only way that I know how to garden," she says.

Located in a part of the estate that was formerly a carpark, it has been challenging to build up the nutrient base, open up the soil and build fertility to sustain the crops, however Kitty is confident that things are moving in the right direction.

"We have a dual function here in the food garden, in that we supply fresh produce to the Overends Restaurant and we are educating people about growing food. It is fantastic to be able to supply the chefs with a range of fresh crops such as salads, tomatoes, herbs, celery and so on, and people love the idea of eating food grown on site. It truly is a local food supply chain," she says. It also delivers on the no waste policy in operation on the estate.

Education is the main focus at Airfield, and last year around 7,500 people took educational tours on site, from pre-schoolers to third level. Whether people come for a coffee, a day out or to attend a formal workshop, there is continual exposure to the farm and gardens, and subsequently how food is produced.

From speaking to those working at the estate, it is apparent that they take their roles as custodians of the land seriously. Kitty effortlessly quoted one of her favourite lines from Lady Eve Balfour, herself an organic pioneer, "the health of the soil, plant and man are one and indivisible".

Indeed, this bustling farm is doing a great job at nurturing the deep connection between humans and the land in a large urban area, where the need to enhance that connection is often even more important

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