As populations become more urban and people become more aware of where their food comes from, city farms, whether it’s beekeeping in Brisbane or vegetable growing in Havana, are coming into their own.
Tony Zhang (pictured below) is a typical Chinese success story. Having grown up in a family of farmers in rural Sichuan province, he pursued a dream of a better life and moved to Shanghai, where he became a successful restaurateur. Years later, however, he felt the urge to return to the land. “My most unforgettable memory is the beautiful scenery of my hometown when I was a child. However, the environment is becoming worse and a lot of farmland has been wasted there. This kind of change upsets me,” he says.
In 2005, Zhang rented a plot of chemically damaged land near Shanghai’s Pudong Airport, about a two-hour drive from downtown, with the goal of launching an organic farm. He spent four years revitalising the soil and invested ¥60m (€7.5m) to build a state-of-the-art water filtration system before he planted the first seed. Tony’s Farm is now the largest organic farm in the city, supplying businesses, schools, private residences and, as of the beginning of 2013, two Carrefour supermarkets with more than 100 varieties of vegetables each year.
With China’s mounting food safety concerns, organic agriculture is poised to become big business in the country. Chinese investors have already sunk ¥250m (€31m) into Tony’s Farm since 2010, allowing Zhang to employ about 200 farmers and residents from the area – offering them a stable salary and benefits – and build a smartly designed visitor’s center from 78 recycled shipping containers.
He has also been accumulating more farmland across China, from southern Hainan province to a new plot in Beijing, which began selling vegetables to city residents last October. Zhang has big goals for his operation—he wants to become the Whole Foods of China and eventually open a chain of organic supermarkets across the country.
He’ll face stiff competition as more Chinese food conglomerates rush in to meet the growing consumer demand for organic produce, but Zhang is confident in his approach, which has remained unchanged since the beginning. “China’s food safety problem has become more and more serious,” he said. “My first wish was to let more people eat safe and healthy vegetables.”
Two years in the making, urban farm Gotham Greens is already turning a profit. Thanks to sophisticated climate control technology the farm produces leafy greens year-round. “That’s what makes us viable,” says co-founder Viraj Puri. “We use hi-tech farming and try to make it a little bit more professional.”
Gotham Greens’ HQ is a green oasis perched on a two-storey building in the heart of Brooklyn’s industrial neighbourhood, Greenpoint. Its 140 sq m climate-controlled greenhouse overlooks the East River. Inside, sensors control the temperature, CO2 and oxygen levels, while 17 employees are hard at work. Its success is largely down to its specialist team: Puri has project management experience in sustainable technology, renewable energy and environmental design and his business partner Eric Haley (who also started the project back in 2008) is a food enthusiast and former investment banker. The team was completed a year later when Jennifer Nelkin, an expert in plant sciences, joined as greenhouse director.
Today, they grow 120 tonnes of lettuce and herbs a year, which they sell directly to restaurants and supermarkets in the area. Puri says Gotham Greens uses 10 times less water and 20 times less land than a traditional farm, thanks to recycling and smart choices in the design stage. “It’s the first commercially viable urban farm on a rooftop in the country,” says Puri.
The inspiration for his brand came to Scott McCutcheon when he spotted beehives during a holiday to New Zealand. “I kept noticing these funny little white boxes on farms as I drove past,” he says. “I decided to stop into one of those farms and ask about what goes on and I was hooked.”
McCutcheon (pictured far left) founded the Downtown Honey Company with restaurateur David Shakespeare (centre) and bar-manager Dave Grayson (right) upon his return. The trio now produce honey for restaurants and shops, using the city as a location for their hives. They’ve opened apiaries atop a selection of restaurants, a yoga studio and even a coffee shop.
Their product is hyper-local: bottles show which hive the honey came from, the postcode in which it was produced and the name of the hive’s queen bee. McCutcheon says in the first year the group produced about 200kg of honey. He expects those figures to double this year.
Nine years ago Pasona Group, a Japanese recruitment firm specialising in clerical, technical and IT, created a rice paddy field in the basement of an office tower in Tokyo’s financial district. Now, Pasona is being hailed in Japan as a pioneer for a new kind of urban farming.
Since moving to a new HQ in Tokyo in 2010, the company has grown organic vegetables and fruit and served them in the staff canteen. On our visit, Japanese pumpkin and bitter melon dangle from trellises in the lobby. Nearby, mist machines spray rows of aubergines. Upstairs, oregano and sprouts spill out of planters and papaya and passion fruit hang from trees that double as meeting-area partitions. ”We stick with produce that you’d normally find growing in temperatures ranging from 20C to 25C,” says Sayaka Itami, who heads the firm’s urban farm group.
With its new HQ, designed by Tokyo-based architecture firm Kono Design, the firm set out to demonstrate that it was possible to grow food indoors in the centre of a big city. It experimented with all kinds of substitutes for sunlight before settling on a mix of fluorescent bulbs, LEDs and lamps found inside flat-panel TVs.
Looking after the office farm is a year-round full-time job for the 10 employees on Pasona’s urban farm team. When they’re not watering and picking and pruning, they are leading tours, meeting customers and encouraging employees to help care for the plants. “It has helped build a sense of community and unity among employees,” says Itami.
Pasona’s office-farm goes beyond feeding the 800 employees – a seventh of its workforce – who are based at its headquarters. It now uses the building to draw attention to its training programmes and internships for aspiring farmers on its own two farms. The goal, says Itami, is to persuade young Japanese to take up agriculture – an urgent task given that the average age of the country’s farmers has risen to 66. So far 40 graduates of Pasona’s programmes have gone on to start their own farms.
Other firms are looking to follow Pasona’s lead. “We have received a lot of enquiries from companies that want to set up indoor farms at their offices,” Itami says.
Urban agriculture has been a way of life in Cuba since the fall of the Eastern Bloc, when fertiliser and the fuel for tractors and trucks became scarce and there was a need to produce food. Today Havana is home to 80 organopónicos (urban gardens), around 15 cultivation areas and hundreds of huertos (kitchen gardens), which occupy everything from traffic islands to plots of disused land.
Among the largest is Vivero Alamar in the municipality of Habana del Este. Here, 192 workers cultivate and sell everything from Swiss chard to medicinal herbs. Its 10.8 hectares has piqued the interest of horticultural experts and sociologists from around the world keen to see how the island feeds itself. “We have had visitors from Harvard University and the Botanical Garden of New York,” says the farm’s president, Miguel Salcines (pictured above left). “There is great interest in our work."
Vivero Alamar’s draw is its integrated organic model – and its worm compost. “Everything is organic, from the fertiliser to the fumigation system,” says Noel Peña, the farm’s administrator. “The quality of our produce is higher since no chemicals are employed."
Vivero Alamar’s success is partly down to the local necessity to find food security in the capital of two million – a place where a form of rationing is still in place. “[In Cuba] there are almost 400,000 people working with this system,” says Salcines, who considers his venture an example of best practice. “These facilities promote employment and community development, improve living standards and encourage family integration. There are entire families working here.”