ON the rooftop of a building on Dalton’s Avenue, overlooking the Coal Quay and Cornmarket, a little slice of Eden is taking shape: An urban farm unlike anything seen in Cork before, or anywhere in Ireland for that matter.
The Covid-19 crisis has changed all our lives dramatically, but Brian McCarthy, 33, from Bishopstown, took the opportunity to create something positive, not just for himself, but also the community at large.
The 7,000 square feet of flat, uninspiring asphalt roof that caps the old warehouse site of Cork Floral Supplies, Brian’s family business, has proven to be the perfect blank canvas for creating a green and pleasant land brimming with vegetables of all kinds.
I spoke to Brian to find out where the idea for Cork Rooftop Farm came from, and how the vision has blossomed from being a space to grow some vegetables for themselves to a future vision for a worthy social enterprise in the heart of Cork City.
“I run my family business, Cork Floral Supplies, a wholesale flower business,” he said. “I found myself with more spare time when the lockdown came into effect.
“There’s a courtyard near my apartment and thought I might put in some grow beds to spruce it up a bit while I had the time, but looking out over the rooftop of the old warehouse, the idea came to put it there instead.”
The site is significant, and Brian was reluctant to begin with, foreseeing the amount of work required to make it happen, but eventually, he came around to the idea.
“I wanted to do something more substantial, that it might develop into something else. But there were no other ambitions for it other than wanting to grow my own food and maybe a bit more for people living locally, our family and friends.”
Keen to do everything correctly, Brian had the roof surveyed to ensure its structure could take the weight of the soil for growing crops.
“It’s a very robust building, built to have cars on top of the rooftop so it’s incredibly strong,” says Brian. With that concern put to rest, work began in earnest.
“A polytunnel went up, and I started planting seeds. I’ve been busy building raised beds and shovelling in the soil ready for when the seedlings need transplanting outdoors. It’s back-breaking work!”
Despite running a floral supplies business, Brian admits he has no growing experience and is coming to the Cork Rooftop Farm project with a low level of gardening experience, but loving every moment of it.
“Thirty-five trays of seeds were planted a few weeks back — I was fairly trepidatious whether any would actually germinate. But a few days later, there were two little green shoots after popping up from one of the trays!
“I’m now at the point where I’m looking at the space and thinking, what can I do with it? People are getting in touch with me to see how they can help; I could have an army of workers up there from the number of people who have gotten in touch — not an option right now, but the interest shown has been incredible.”
Brian is financing the entire project from his own pocket and the ethos of the farm is to reuse materials and make the farm sustainable. A big part of that is about growing the crops chemical-free and mixing up traditional and modern growing methods to try and make the farm productive for all seasons.
“I want to keep the farm producing all year round, so I’m looking at what options there are. I’m looking for another polytunnel, hopefully I will source a frame that has fallen into disrepair or not used anymore. I’d prefer to source something that can be reused — mindful that I’m on a budget, but also if I can reuse materials that are lying idle or a polytunnel that’s not functioning anymore, I’d prefer to use that than something that is brand new.
“I was able to make use of wooden roof trusses from a renovation project on a building next door to the farm — I’ve recycled about 70% of that material now into creating the raised beds.
“I’m also in contact with Grow Towers Ireland, based near Fountainstown, looking at aquaponics, aeroponics and hydroponics to experiment with lots of different technologies.
“It’s fascinating, obviously more complex than just creating some raised beds, but for a rooftop environment it could allow me to grow a huge amount of produce quite densely and over a shorter period.
“At the same time, I don’t want the farm to be a science lab, I want to have a mixture of techniques, traditional and modern, to have a cross section of how things are grown. There’s a bit more of an emotional attachment when you grow something in soil, but also how different methods affect the flavour of the crops.
“It’s all about looking at everything that’s out there that can make a project like this sustainable into the future and how I can get the best yield. That’s very much a goal to work towards for the future; for now I want to grow whatever I can this year and sell it on to fund the next stage of the farm.
“I sourced all of the organic seed from Brown Envelope Seeds in West Cork. I don’t want to involve any sort of artificial fertiliser or chemicals, and have started a Community Compost Heap, reaching out to people in the farm’s immediate vicinity who can travel to bring their compostable materials. I want to see what can be done in terms of incorporating the community and encourage people to reuse materials back into the farm, so they can see how their waste has helped transform a space that was unused into a fertile farm.
“I’ll be growing lots of different varieties of tomato; potatoes, carrots, parsnips, lettuce, herbs (parsley, basil, dill); peppers, chillies, onions, garlic; different types of beans, cucumbers, squash, radishes, pumpkins; peas, leeks, turnips and beetroots.”
Should everything crop well, the harvest will exceed Brian’s own purposes, but he has already been approached by local restaurants, gastro-pubs and food markets expressing an interest in the produce.
“I’m a bit trepidatious because I don’t know what sort of volume of produce I’ll get from the farm – at the moment it’s one big experiment!
“I need to see if this kind of environment is any good at producing food. The soil I’ve sourced for the raised beds is pretty decent stuff, adding a bit more nutrients, crops should grow well in it. Being a rooftop, there are different sorts of pests to a rural setting: pigeons and seagulls, so I have to learn how to deal with them!
“The immediate goal is to get all the raised beds planted up. After that, I just have to see how things go. There’s huge interest locally from businesses who want the farm’s produce, so I think I’ll have no issue getting the produce to people, I’m just unsure how much there will be!”
It’s been just over a month since Brian began Cork Rooftop Farm, and already the project has created quite a stir, garnering the attentions of the nation’s best-loved gardener, Diarmuid Gavin.
“Diarmuid got in touch with me at an early stage and he’s been great in highlighting the project and is still in touch to keep up to date. I’d say if the lockdown wasn’t in place, he’d be up on the roof with me filtering soil!”
Cork Rooftop Farm has captured people’s imagination. It is unique to Ireland, and Brian hopes to demonstrate the possibilities for urban agriculture in Cork city, adding to other projects under the banner of Greening Up Cork. For a city that refers to itself as Ireland’s Food Capital, hardly any food is grown in the urban centre. This isn’t unusual for cities, but success at Cork Rooftop Farm would show that cities do not have to be food deserts: they can be productive spaces, it’s just a question of finding the opportunity and putting the work in.
The community of growers and small plot farmers is well known for its openness to share knowledge and support, something Brian has been exposed to throughout the project so far.
“I’m overwhelmed by the willingness of everyone to share their knowledge or help in any way they can. Some industries can be closed minded or keep their trade secrets to themselves, whereas it seems to be an open book policy with growers. This project will benefit the community, so if I can impart any bit of knowledge onto someone else, there will be an exponential effect. That’s something I hope to achieve through this project, that it might be something of a catalyst around the community.
“What started as a small project to grow some food has developed into something much more meaningful and bigger and I want to do it the right way and be able to share it with people.
“It would be a shame to do all this back-breaking work and then, because I didn’t look into the proper regs, I have to stop everything. So I’m trying to be proactive in that too: ‘Learning on the Hoof’ has become my motto!
“I’m hoping to incorporate a Social Enterprise aspect to the project. I’ve already been approached by a number of parents of children with physical or intellectual disabilities so I’ll definitely try and give people the opportunity to interact with the farm.”
The Covid lockdown has given Brian the time to put into this project when it needs a lot of energy. But it’s also been good for him, too.
“I’ve really enjoyed the process and I’m still enjoying it every day.
“Some days are hard, like lifting 70 pallets up flights of stairs and wondering what on earth I’m doing; but then the raised beds start taking form and seeds start to grow — that’s when I can stand back and say: Yes, this is why I’m doing this!”
Follow Cork Rooftop Farm on Instagram @corkrooftopfarm. Listen to their Podcast on Anchor FM: https://anchor.fm/corkrooftopfarm