Even on a wet weekday there’s a convivial buzz at Acre Eatery, the light-filled restaurant overlooking one of Sydney’s newest urban farms. Pocket City Farm in the inner west suburb of Camperdown lies just a block from one of Sydney’s major arterial roads yet it feels almost rural with its kale, beetroot and lettuces in neatly planted rows. It’s only been open since June and is part of a growing trend towards converting languishing urban spaces into productive ones.
Just as good farming land is giving way to housing on Sydney’s outskirts, entrepreneurs and small scale producers are seeing opportunities to grow fruit, vegetables and herbs right where the population is densest.
Entrepreneur and founding member of Pocket City, Luke Heard, decided to tackle a project like this after reading an alarming food security article in a magazine left in an aeroplane seat pocket. He’d seen an urban rooftop farm in New York succeed because it had several non-farming strings to its bow.
“For Pocket City Farm the vast majority of the income will come from non-farming related activities too,” he says. “We do a lot of workshops on things like small scale edible gardening, worm farming as well as yoga and tai chi in the morning. We also have local schools that come and do tours.”
There are a few seaside yoga classes around Sydney but if doing your asanas overlooking an organic urban farm gets you humming, this is where you need to head. The classes which run three times a week are open to all levels of experience and help support the farm.
Even with classes and tours, increasing food production is high on the agenda, Luke says.
“We’re actively pursuing other sites and if we could generate food on a bigger scale then perhaps that’d help. Agriculture doesn’t necessarily work financially on a small scale so if you went into this thinking you’d make enough money from a few produce sales you’d be quite foolish,” he says.
Even more tranquil than Pocket City is Martin Boetz’s farm at Sackville on the Hawkesbury River about an hour from Sydney’s centre. Martin, formerly executive chef at Sydney Thai restaurant, Longrain, has about two acres cultivated with vegetables and herbs. He’s left the heat in restaurant kitchens and is now focussing on farming for them, growing plants with a strong Asian influence as well as four varieties of beans, potatoes, cavolo nero and peppers. But while continuing his steep learning curve in farming, he too is diversifying.
“I’m concentrating on holding events,” Martin says. “There’s lots happening over the next few months and into next year.”
Cooking classes and long lunches showcasing his produce are just two of the activities Martin offers in an original 19th century barn. He also rents out a chic one-bedroom cottage on the property for romantic holidays with spectacular views straight down the Hawkesbury River.
Landscape architect and television megastar, Costa Georgiadis, despairs at the loss of local farm land to housing not just in the fertile Hawkesbury area and sees urban farming as the future of food security.
“It’s about young people interested and driven to not only learn more but act on the provenance of their food. You’ve got people wanting to activate unused and left over spaces around cities and Pocket City Farm is a great example of a change in land use,” he says.
Youth and innovation are recurring themes in Costa’s outlook on urban farming, factors that are driving its uptake.
“Young people have access to a lot more information and they’re not going to be sold green wash. They’re seeing lies and deception, food becoming a commodity and unrealistically low supermarket prices used as a benchmark. Urban farms are about fair prices, not about bringing berries into Australia at $4.95 a kilo knowing the people picking them in South America are being paid $5 a day,” he says.
He believes there’s a strong desire to support a community organisation that pays people properly as long as the story’s transparent. Luke Heard agrees having felt the glow of local support first hand.
“The vast majority of the community is so happy this land didn’t become an apartment block. They’re very welcoming which gives me a shot in the arm,” he says.
Councils, too, are getting on board according to Costa.
“I think councils are realising they can get a huge amount of publicity and goodwill by supporting these projects. They’re doing u-turns on old policies because they’re realising if they keep living in the 1950s they’ll be embarrassed by other more progressive councils.”
Projects like Pocket City take a fresh approach to everything from funding to farming methods, Costa says.
“Crowd funding is doing enormous things for projects that would otherwise never see the light of day. The people involved don’t have the baggage of being in farming for generations, they’re looking at it a bit differently. Young people are taking their knowledge of permaculture and sustainability and using it to solve problems they see around them,” he says.
Costa’s seen the multiple income stream model work in many settings and agrees it’s the key to success. An operation in Queensland’s Toowoomba has chickens, eggs and aquaponics with nutrient rich water from the tanks fertilising and hydrating the garden. Another business collects coffee grounds from cafes, grows mushrooms in it and sells them back to restaurants.
“There’s lots of opportunity for youthful inventiveness to bring food growing into urban spaces and to come up with ways to make them work. They’re bringing the community along for the ride, building a tribe to support them. That’s the exciting part.”
Eat local here in Sydney
Acre Eatery, 31A Mallett St, Camperdown sourcing from Pocket City Farm. Come for the stylish Scandi decor, stay for the ‘Acre’ salad with farro, hazelnuts, kale and eggplant.
4Fourteen, 72A Fitzroy St, Surry Hills sourcing from Cooks Co-op. Try the spectacular silverbeet side dish with leaves lightly battered and fried whole in this warehouse-style space.
Cornersmith, 314 Illawarra Rd, Marrickville sourcing from neighbourhood gardens via donation traded for coffee or preserves. Housemade pickles feature in the Ploughmans Lunch in this neighbourhood cafe.
Icebergs Dining Room and Bar, 1 Notts Ave, Bondi Beach sourcing from Cooks Co-op. Swoon over stunning ocean views and sophisticated Italian food with mint brightening a pea, farro and salted ricotta salad.
Do a course here
SYDNEY Cornersmith Picklery, 441 Illawarra Rd, Marrickville – Preserving and cheese making
PERTH Earth Carers, www.earthcarers.org.au – Waste reduction, composting, worm farming and green cleaning
GOLD COAST Permaculture Gold Coast, www.permacultureglobal.org.au – Organic gardening and fermenting food for beginners.
MELBOURNE Natural Beekeeping, www.naturalbeekeeping.org.au – Beekeeping for beginners
This was the cover story in Scoot Magazine in October 2016.