Urban farmer Rachel Rubenstein thinks the coronavirus pandemic, which has shut down major cities, state and international borders, is a chance to rethink where we get our food from.
Local car parks, median strips and rooftops, golf courses and even public parks — they’re just some of the ideas she and her city farming friends are throwing around as potential places to grow food.
“I think that having food grown close to home is super important, because we have seen a lack of access to fresh food with the bushfires and then COVID,” Ms Rubenstein said.
In Melbourne’s inner-northern suburb of East Brunswick, she’s growing fresh organic produce such as carrots, radishes, spinach, broccoli, and citrus for Ceres — a not-for-profit community-run environment park and farm.
Ceres has seen demand for its food boxes double since the pandemic began, as lockdowns forced people to shop more locally than ever before.
“Everything that I grow here on the farm is harvested straight away and goes straight to the grocery and the cafe on site,” Ms Rubenstein said.
“Just seeing how much I can grow in 250 square metres says something about how we can utilise space better in the city.”
Ceres grows vegetables across two sites in the inner city, but it’s not enough to fill demand with produce sourced from elsewhere to help fill the gap.
Farms like this are a rare sight in Australian cities, with space a major constraint.
Calls to take existing green spaces, such as public parks and golf courses, and adapt them to support things like agriculture are growing in urban centres.
Nick Verginis recently started a social media group called ‘Community to Unlock Northcote Golf Course’ in a bid to get his local fairway converted into a public park with possible room for agriculture too.
The golf club is across the river from Ceres.
“In lockdown people have been really hungry to get in touch with nature, using whatever space they have on their balconies or in their small gardens to grow their own produce,” he said.
“This [fairway] obviously would be a natural place to expand that [farm], so some local residents could have access to a plot of land.”
Farming on the fringe
Converting sections of green spaces into farmland to create a local food bowl is already a reality in Western Sydney Parklands in New South Wales.
Five per cent of the 264-hectare park has been set aside for urban agriculture and 16 farms are already operating on it, selling at the farmgate or across Sydney.
Western Sydney Parklands is one of the largest urban parks in Australia — almost the same size as Sydney Harbour — and is one of the biggest urban farming projects in the country.
Sun Fresh Farms, run by Meng Sun and her mother Thou Chheav, has been leasing land off the Parkland for nine years to grow cucumbers, strawberries, zucchini, cherry tomatoes, and broad beans.
Ms Sun said, even before the pandemic, the popularity of sourcing food from peri-urban farms like her family’s was taking off.
“All the locals come out on the weekends. It’s providing food for the local community and also it gives them a better understanding of where food and vegetables come from,” she said.
Unlike produce sold at larger supermarkets that was often picked before it ripened, Ms Sun said being able to buy fresh vine-ripe produce appealed to customers.
“We like to pick fresh and sell direct to the customers. Cut the middleman out so there’s not much heavy lifting involved, it is just straight to the farm gate,” she said.
Suellen Fitzgerald, the chief executive of Greater Sydney Parklands, said they were currently accepting applications for new farming projects so that the precinct could expand its food production.
“Many of our farmers have roadside stalls and during the pandemic have reported an up-swing in customers, with the community choosing to shop locally over traditional supermarkets,” Ms Fitzgerald said.
Suring up food supply
Rachel Carey, a lecturer in food systems at the University of Melbourne, said cities should increase their urban farming capacity as an “insurance policy” in the event of future natural disasters or pandemics that disrupt supply chains.
“Obviously urban agriculture is a much smaller part of our food supply system, but I think it does have an important role in future,” Dr Carey said.
“If we can keep some of this food production locally it acts as a bit of a buffer or an insurance policy against those future shocks and stresses.”
Dr Carey said cities were more conducive to agriculture than most people realised.
“Cities have access to really important waste streams, and also food waste that can be converted into compost and used back on farms,” she said.
“If we can keep some urban food production close by it enables us to develop what we call circular food economies, where we are taking those waste products and we’re reutilizing them back in food production to keep those important nutrients in the food supply.”
The other benefit was financial.
Dr Carey said buying food from local farmers helped to “keep that money circulating within our own economy rather than going outside to other areas”.
She believed Australian towns and cities should also consider the United Kingdom’s food allotment system, where local governments or town councils rented small parcels of land to individuals for them to grow their own crops on.
Major European cities such as Paris have also embraced urban farming amid the pandemic — the largest rooftop farm in Europe opened there in July.
The farm, which spans 4,000 square metres atop the Paris Exhibition Centre, supports a commercial operation as well as leases out small plots to locals who want to grow their own food.
There are plans to increase it to 14,000 square metres, almost the size of two football fields, and house 20 market gardeners.
From converting sections of golf courses or public parks into small farms, or median strips, car parks or rooftops, Dr Carey said the pandemic had shown the time was ripe to reconsider our urban food production methods.
“I see COVID-19 is a transformational moment that is going to lead to some rethinking about the way that we use our spaces in urban areas and in the city,” she said.
“So cities around the world are starting to look more to urban agriculture not just in terms of city soil-based farms, but also non-soil-based farms such as vertical farms and intensive glasshouse farming.”