You can have a thriving farm in the middle of a city

As she continues her series of interviews with Cork’s vegetable growers, KATE RYAN looks at how our cities can be used to grow fresh food - like at Cork Rooftop Farm
You can have a thriving farm in the middle of a city

Brian McCarthy and Thay Carlos outside the Cork Rooftop Farm shop on Cornmarket Street, Cork. Picture: Larry Cummins

BY the year 2050, the global population is estimated to be nine billion, with around 70% of them living in cities.

In terms of food, particularly horticulture, this future prospect is only adding to already existing pressures on the availability of fresh food to those living in our urban centres.

It’s not as if food isn’t available in towns and cities. Between restaurants and cafes, supermarkets, farmers’ markets and the uniqueness of Cork city’s English Market, there is an embarrassment of riches of great food for us to buy. But when it comes to fresh food grown in towns and cities, there is a huge shortage.

Cities are hungry beasts. A disconnect between where people live and where their food is grown creates a situation where, from farm to fork, food has less nutrition, has travelled further, and is more expensive.

Brian McCarthy at the Cork Rooftop Farm.
Brian McCarthy at the Cork Rooftop Farm.

Cities become increasingly less food secure; they become food deserts.

Cork Rooftop Farm started as an idea in March, 2020, when Brian McCarthy and partner Thay Carlos looked out onto the roof of an old warehouse building located on Dalton’s Avenue and imagined growing a few vegetables for themselves, their friends and family as a lockdown project.

In the two years since, Cork Rooftop Farm has become a highly productive urban and peri-urban farm. In addition to the near 7,000 square foot rooftop space, there is a half-acre no-dig plot in Laharn, Coachford.

The duo launched their first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) veg box scheme in spring, 2021, and Brian was awarded a Nuffield Scholarship, which supports future leaders in agriculture. Then, in November, 2021, they opened their first shop on the Coal Quay selling produce from their farm, a coffee dock, and a small garden centre.

I caught up with Brian to find out what is coming next, and why he believes urban farming is essential for the future of city living.

“When we started Cork Rooftop Farm in 2020, I had no idea where it could go – I guess we’re only limited by our work ethic and imagination!” he said.

Despite it being a chilly February day, there is plenty of life on the rooftop. Kale, chard, leeks, sprouts, and edible flowers are in bloom on the roof, and six very fat hens are enjoying their own version of city living, turning leafy greens into nutrient rich soil and delicious eggs.

In one greenhouse, 58 Grow Towers are bursting with rocket, mizuna, and red mustard, coriander, mint, and rainbow chard.

Grow Towers are an example of aquaponics where food is grown without soil and fed a perfect balance of nutrients in a cascade of recycled water from top to bottom. Temperature and humidity are controlled, and from seed to harvest crops are ready in just one month with two harvests from each tower.

These crops are destined for cafes and restaurants in the city that have realised the benefits of freshly grown and harvested chemical-free salad greens right on their doorstep.

In the second greenhouse, trays alive with miniature forests of microgreens bask in 22-degree temperatures. Peashoots, mizuna, rocket, red and green mustard, broccoli, and cress microgreens are grown here to supply the shop below. Microgreens are packed with nutrients – 100 times more than the fully grown vegetable. I remember growing cress on paper towels in school – this is next level, fuelled by Gen-Z demand and informed by advances in nutritional science.

Rooftop produce supplies the shop below and is more of an experimental growing space where new crops and appetites can be trialled before granting valuable space in the larger-scale market garden.

There are incredible plans for this space, including a fully-glazed dining zone, more greenhouses and raised beds, spaces and facilities to launch Cork Rooftop Farm as a new model farm and a centre for agri-education and agri-tourism – close to Brian’s heart since becoming a Nuffield Scholar.

“I applied for the Nuffield Scholarship, but genuinely didn’t think I would be selected,” Brian recalls.

“It’s designed to support who they see as future leaders in agriculture and working with state agencies on the future of agricultural policy. I’m focused on a chemical-free future of food in Ireland, to have Cork Rooftop Farm as a central hub for education linked with a productive zone on the edge of the city.”

Brian receives calls daily from people and groups to come and tour the rooftop farm, but before that there is work to be done.

“We have to build a small brick boundary wall around the roof to replace the current wooden one for safety and lay down paving slabs and gravel to mark out walkways and to protect the existing asphalt on the roof,” explains Brian.

There’s the small matter of health and fire safety compliance before it can become accessible to the public, too.

“The plan is by summer, 2022, we will have enough work done to be able to finally allow people to come and visit. The rest we hope to start work on this year, but it depends on planning approval.”

Cork Rooftop Farm run a market garden in Laharn, pictured above.
Cork Rooftop Farm run a market garden in Laharn, pictured above.

Funding is crucial, and Brian is committed to being able to self-fund the farm’s ambitious plans – the shop and the CSA scheme are a big part of that. But with expansion comes more work. Brian and partner Thay did most of the early work themselves, roping in helping hands from friends and family.

Now, they have five staff working the farm between the city and Laharn, but still there is more work than can be easily handled. A solution to this issue came from visiting another farm through Nuffield.

“We want to create a mini-allotment space on the Rooftop Farm. We’ll keep the raised beds but lease them out on a subscription basis,” he said.

This will allow access to anyone who wants to grow their own food but doesn’t have access to space. There is a long tradition of allotmenteering and market gardening in Cork city from the 18th century to the early 20th century when 2,500 allotment plots peppered outlying urban areas. Today, there are just 150; but the more the merrier, especially if that means rediscovering the city’s ability to grow its own food.

“There’s huge potential in the city all around us,” says Brian, who lists various spaces, roofs, and derelict places in the immediate vicinity of Cork Rooftop Farm with the potential to turn over to growing spaces.

“Agriculture has to an extent always been an urban activity, but there’s a disconnect now between food producers and consumption. The horticulture industry in Ireland is pinned to its collar with the multiples employing below cost selling. We need pockets of urban agriculture to make the link to food more real and access to nutrient-dense food easy. Education is such an important part of that.

“Places like Cork Rooftop Farm have a beneficial impact on everyone living in the city. We have a lot of soil up here which absorbs a lot of rainwater that otherwise would run away into a sewer system that already can’t cope with storm water capacity.

“There’s a half a degree bump in temperatures in cities, and green spaces help to reduce heat impact through active cooling down. Growing food in cities helps to reduce food miles and carbon emissions as a result; urban gardens take carbon out of the atmosphere and become lungs in the city, and we can educate people to grow their own food too.”

Cork Rooftop Farm
Cork Rooftop Farm

The market garden in Laharn is just a half-acre in size. A wide variety of seasonal crops are grown intensively utilising chemical-free and no-dig methods and funded by the CSA scheme which has launched again for the coming year.

“Last year, we completely sold out our slots, and we are hoping to achieve the same again this year,” says Brian. Options are for a weekly subscription over 20 weeks (€570) or bi-weekly for 10 weeks (€304), equivalent to €28.50 per week, and includes salad leaves, carrots, lettuce, beetroot, tomatoes, kale, spring onions, white turnips, potatoes, mixed herbs, radishes, and pea shoots.

CSA members can also avail of exclusive events or to volunteer on the farm. Between the rooftop farm and market garden, enough produce is grown to service city-based restaurants and cafes, CSA scheme, shop, a stall at Mahon Point farmers’ market, and three Neighbourfood markets in Cork city, Cuskinny and Douglas.

With so much achieved in two years, has the ethos of Cork Rooftop Farm changed?

“The ethos is the same, all of our decisions are based around sustainability and regenerative agriculture. The three pillars of sustainability are Community, Social and Economic; we want the farm to be and continue to be sustainable and show others what can be done.” For more, see www.corkrooftopfarm.ie

Update on Cork Urban Soil Project (CUSP)

CUSP is an innovative solution-based experiment that harnesses food waste and transforms it into a biologically alive soil for growing crops in an urban setting. The project has an avid food partner in My Goodness, the vegan food company passionate about circular economy, reducing food waste, and using would-be waste to produce something of value.

The project recently received a European-funded Circular Economy grant for a project manager, gardener, and maintenance person to start a new urban farm across from the My Goodness production facility on Centre Park Road.

The grant also allows for the purchase of a van and trailer, and to set up an indoor growing area at My Goodness where the soil created from food waste will be used to grow new crops.

“We’re one of ten groups around Ireland selected for a year to practice circular economy,” explains My Goodness co-founder Virginia O’Gara.

“We have a bit more space for growing great vegetables in the city for city people and then this would-be-waste that would create pollution in a linear food system is being circled back into our business to become a product.

“It’s incredibly important right now that we have healthy soil and the understanding of how to create healthy soil.

“We’re working with a microbiologist in UCC to set up a living lab to study the soil produced from food waste, to analyse it and the crops grown from that soil to understand better how a healthy soil creates healthy vegetables creates healthy food. It’s exciting to learn about the microbes in the soil we’re creating, what are they and how are they affecting the food we grow and eat.”

See www.urbansoilproject.com

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